Blackface and other Deplorable Carnival Traditions: Mardi Gras 1921

Greasepaint, tap shoes, derision and 209 years of dehumanization make an interestingly accepted yet controversial carnival tradition. The Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club, well known for its predominance as an African American krewe and their blackface dress sadly resemble said practice. The basis of Zulu’s use of  blackface stems from the observance of a skit called, “There Never Was and Never Will Be a King Like Me” regarding the Zulu Tribe. This skit and the statement “there never was and never will be a king like me” would inspire a laudation of the Zulu Tribe. This tribute would comprise of grass skirts, hand-painted coconuts to be thrown to pararders and unfortunately blackface. Although this form of commemoration is meant to serve a greater purpose, its likeness to minstrelsy hinges on a substantial farce of black people not only in the present but as well as in past Mardi Gras celebrations. In addition to its livelihood in the past, minstrelsy/blackface holds roots in white supremacy which links to the presence of Minstrel shows and black culture in early Mardi Gras and Carnival festivities while there is an exclusion of black New Orleanians in the celebrations.

 The celebration of Mardi Gras has been the domain of white New Orleanians for many years, with its origins rooted in the ambitions of rich white elitist men. The krewes that they formed allowed fellow white elitist families to perpetuate their position through traditional balls and Krewe parades where they showcased themselves on their floats in celebration. By 1921, changes had altered this world and the celebration of Carnival began opening  up to all New Orleans citizens of the white race as the city sought to rebuild traditions after the First World War. Yet Black New Orleanians remained unwelcome in any part of Mardi Gras (save Zulu) unless they served as flambeaux holders, float drivers or portrayed some other inferior stereotype. The irony of this is that while black people faced exclusion from meaningful participation in public Mardi Gras, there was a heavy essence of black culture. The presence of black culture reigned in African-American performance, and this was mimicked and sometimes mocked  within the early minstrel shows enacted by white krewes, schools, police departments, and other organizations.

Minstrelsy/Minstrel shows were viewed as congenial performances. The act was often portrayed in every part of the early 1920s New Orleanians community. It was almost as if the demeaning portrayal of black folks was a right of passage. People of the white race as young as boy scouts partook in blackface productions. New Orleans Boy Scouts of Troop 40 were recorded in the Times Picayune to have been “planning another minstrel show better and bigger than any others [they] [had] given” in the past1. The scouts of Troop 40 would comprise their next show of “only scout talent” positioning children at the forefront of the disgusting practice2. The parody of black people lived at liberty in early New Orleans. Whilst schools, troops, churches and celebrations held minstrel shows, they were also regularly performed in theaters. It is written that “minstrel shows were [all] the rage” in the early days of blatant racism3. In its prime years, blackface invaded all spaces of white New Orleanians residences until it would reach the illustrious krewe celebrations in an obscene merriment.

At the ambitions of “individual white thespians” minstrel shows would imitate “African American song and dance” as an amusement4. These acts were to represent “caricatures of black slaves” in a blithe manner5. The act of minstrelsy would conform to suit the traditions of ‘masking’ in Mardi Gras and Krewe celebrations. These masking’s of minstrelsy in Mardi Gras would often portray stories of a specific Black figure’s history. The popular figures of these masking’s are known to certain New Orleans natives/communities6 as the nѐgre and negresse. The nѐgre7 and negresse tells a story that “commemorate antebellum rituals.”8 These characters were played by white men who painted their faces with greasepaint to appear as black people9. While there is a story being portrayed, these characters are also looked upon as comedy and side characters. In one Rex parade, marchers “included white people masquerading as black people”10 as well as other anonymous characters. Paraders that followed the Rex procession dressed in “blackface”11 as well as other offensive characters that were thought to be ‘silly.’ Satire seemed to be the only original culture of the Krewes other than royal domination.

The history of Mardi Gras is rich within it’s dark celebrations of minstrelsy and it’s lack of African American inclusion. Past carnivals reveled in krewemenship, family values and good entertainment built on the ordeals of that of the lower class and non-white citizens yet reigned uninviting. It’s foundation sits on the contribution of black culture in the likes of music, dance and antebellum history. The celebration and those in rulership of it fashioned an irony of commemoration in prohibiting Black New Orleanians from the festivities while also incorporating Black history in an abhorrent performance that was received as comedy to white audiences. This development is not often discussed or even the slightest realized. The narrative of Mardi Gras erases the ordeals of Black people, especially the natives of New Orleans, and fails to recognize the irrefutable wrongdoings against them. There is a lack of acknowledgement for the black culture that has played a significant part in each carnival, as well as the responsibility taken by Krewes for stereotypical mock performances.  Mardi Gras, Krewes and surrounding festivals are rooted  in more than just family celebrations and royal costuming.

Notes

  1.  Lewis, Frank. “Another Minstrel Show.” Times-Picayune. May 8, 1921. Access World News – Historical and Current.
  2. Lewis, Frank. “Another Minstrel Show.” Times-Picayune. May 8, 1921. Access World News – Historical and Current.
  3. Amusements The Tulane- Loews Crescent.” Times-Picayune. January 21, 1921. Access World News – Historical and Current.
  4. BARLOW, BILL, and CHARLES REAGAN WILSON. “Minstrelsy.” In The New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, edited by BILL C. MALONE, 89–91. Volume 12: Music. University of North Carolina Press, 2008.
  5. Ibid. .
  6. Cajun Country Mardi Gras: Southwest Louisiana 
  7. A man depicted with a whip who punishes soldats (revelers). 
  8. Lindahl, Carl. “A Note on Blackface.” The Journal of American Folklore 114, no. 452 (2001): 248-54. Accessed November 14, 2020. doi:10.2307/542098.
  9. Lindahl, Carl. “A Note on Blackface.” The Journal of American Folklore 114, no. 452 (2001): 248-54. Accessed November 14, 2020. doi:10.2307/542098.
  10. Mitchell, Reid. All on a Mardi Gras Day: Episodes in the History of the New Orleans Carnivals. Harvard University Press, 1999. 
  11. Mitchell, Reid. All on a Mardi Gras Day: Episodes in the History of the New Orleans Carnivals. Harvard University Press, 1999. 
  12. Mendes, John Tibule, 1888-1965. Children’s Play Week. September 1, 1918.
  13. Mendes and John Tibule, 1888-1965. Jefferson City Buzzards Marching, n.d.