I’m havin’ my fun on the Mardi Gras Day
Mardi Gras, for many, means a chance to travel to New Orleans and indulge in a certain kind of debauchery that is generally frowned upon in the rest of the world. There is something exciting to tourists about being able to drink alcohol openly and wander down infamous Bourbon Street.
When we look at Mardi Gras historically, there is a blatant foundation of racism and classism. You see this in the high membership fees for parading krewes and veiled white men who often selectively (see racially-selective), throw beads at the crowds who yell at them to, “Throw me something, mister.” Black participation in Mardi Gras was initially reserved for the position of flambeaux; men who carried torches for miles to light parade routes. The main Mardi Gras routes follow St. Charles and Canal Streets, and black social clubs, most notably the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure club, were forced to parade on back streets of black neighborhoods. Black social clubs, most notably the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club, were not allowed to parade on main routes, like Saint Charles and Canal Street until 1968. Up until then, black krewes were contained to routes along back streets of black neighborhoods.
To counter this exclusion, New Orleans’ black community did what most oppressed groups do; created something that is now ingrained in the fabric of the city’s culture. In black neighborhoods in Uptown and Downtown New Orleans, parading men created gangs called Mardi Gras Indians. Similar to West African secret societies, these gangs are shrouded in secrecy and ritual. Outwardly, the suits, chants and music pay homage to the African and Indigenous roots of the New Orleans black population, with ritualized hierarchal structures. So while Mardi Gras holds great historical and cultural weight for the city of New Orleans; the history of Mardi Gras Indians tells a greater story of black perseverance and influence.
My spy boy met your spy boy / Sitting by the fire / My spy boy told your spy boy / I’m gonna set your flag on fire
In 2014, I interviewed a man called Spy Boy Honey, a member of the oldest Mardi Gras Indian gang, The Creole Wild West. We spoke candidly about his time away from New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. The thing that stuck with me the most was when Spy Boy Honey reminisced about his time away from the city, “I left New Orleans after the storm and didn’t listen to Mardis Gras music for almost nine months. Then one day I heard it and I just started crying. I had to come home, so I came on back to New Orleans.” This spiritual reaction and connection to Mardi Gras Indian culture, is also parallel to African secret societies in that it is not something you choose, it is something that chooses you.
Spy Boy Honey’s name, is indicative of the ritualized hierarchy of Mardi Gras Indians. Every person plays their part. Since black people were confined to their own neighborhoods, it was expectant that the paths of different gangs would cross. It was the role of spy boy, to spy on and be on the lookout for other parading Indians. This tradition is archived in Sugar Boy Crawford and His Cane Cutters 1953 single, Iko, Iko, where the lyrics tell the meeting of two rival spy boys, with one threatening to burn the flag of the rival gang’s flag boy. The flag boy comes next in line and carries the banner of his gang. This mirrors the European procession, in which masked men carrying banners precede the coming floats. Penultimate is the Wild Man. He is the one who clears the paths for and gives compliments like, “You so pretty.”, to his Big Chief. Lastly, comes the Big Chief, the leader of the gang and the one who decides which route to take.
The tradition goes something like this: a gang searches for a route to parade, their spy boys walk ahead in search of any rival gangs. As the gangs parade, should they pass one another it is at the discretion of the Big Chief whether they continue to parade, or meet face to face. This meeting, or masking, was often used to violently settle personal disputes. The name of the song, Jock-A-Mo and the repeated Iko, Iko are reiterations of Indigenous battle and victory cries. Now the only battle and weaponry are the suits, heavy with intricate beadwork and feathered headdresses. Every member spends a year hand making his suit, so these maskings are the time for them to show off their hard work.
We dress this way to pay homage to the Native American tribes, like the Choctaw, who took us in when we ran away. . . All the beading and feathers we use, we use to pay tribute to them. – Spy Boy Honey
Sundays in New Orleans hold heavy significance for its black population. New Orleans handled its enslaved populations uniquely; in that they allowed them a day of rest. On Sundays, slaves were able to congregate in Congo Square, while European slave owners attended mass. Some enslaved people and freed people of color were also able to sell goods and keep profit. It is in Congo Square that black people created and exchanged rhythms and dances. This is where jazz music and second lines were created. Second lines are in short, a neighborhood march. In the first line is the brass band. Brass bands are a New Orleans musical tradition steeped in military colonialism and black innovation with brass instruments. The second line is formed by the people, who follow the band throughout the city, dancing behind.
For Mardi Gras Indians there is Super Sunday. A masking that generally occurs on the third Sunday of March. It is a day that honors St. Joseph’s Day, as an homage to the Sicilian community who celebrate this saint and who gave refuge to black New Orleanians. This day is perhaps larger than Mardi Gras for the Indians, as it gets down to the very roots of its tradition. There are no masked men looking down at your from above, and you do not get beads. What you do receive is an insight into a hundred year tradition. Super Sunday is an exhibition of the tradition of what black people do greatly; creating as a means to transcend physical, mental and spiritual suffering.
So as you plan your next trip to New Orleans, I highly suggest that you travel outside of Mardi Gras season. If you have never felt the overwhelming spirit of black joy, come to New Orleans on a Sunday.
Song: Jock A Mo
Artist: Sugar Boy Crawford and His Cane Cutters
Album: Jock A Mo
Writer: James “Sugar Boy” Crawford