The citizens of Mobile, Ala., know it’s the birthplace of Mardi Gras in America. If the subject of New Orleans comes up, they might mention the Big Easy’s Fat Tuesday party.
Anyone who has attended the twin bacchanalian Fat Tuesday celebrations in New Orleans and Mobile, Ala., will testify that the real Mardi Gras takes place in Mobile. If you ask, Mobile’s residents will mention offhandedly that their city was America’s first Mardi Gras and ... well ... that’s about it. They don’t really care if you know about theirs at all.
The celebration of Fat Tuesday in the New World began in Mobile, Ala., in 1704, 14 years before the city of New Orleans was founded. Interchangeably called “Shrovetide,” “Carnival,” “Mardi Gras,” or (less commonly) “The Festival of Liquor-Filled Cups,” the feast is a celebration that precedes Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent. While the holiday is ensconced in the tradition of the Catholic church, it has evolved into a nonreligious celebration around the world.
In Mobile, the first thing you will notice is that—unlike most inter-city rivalries—no one feels as if there is a competition between the better-known New Orleans carnival and the one on Alabama’s gulf coast. Mobilians will readily admit that New Orleans’ Mardi Gras is much bigger but they don’t feel a need to compare the two because, while Mobile and New Orleans are both majority-black cities, they all agree that Mardi Gras in New Orleans might be the biggest annual party in America. The Big Easy’s yearly explosion of drunken revelry is more popular and known worldwide.
But Mardi Gras in Mobile is blacker.
The first difference one is sure to notice between Fat Tuesday in Mobile and N’awlins is the astonishing lack of distinctly Caucasian drunken “woo-hoo” screams, bare-breasted white women and puddles of vomit. Chronicled in the award-winning 2008 documentary, The Order of the Myths, Mobile’s barely intersecting celebrations are segregated and steeped in separate and unequal traditions.
I attended the black Mardi Gras.
While Bourbon Street is the tourist destination in New Orleans, the entire city of Mobile transforms into one big, black homecoming. During the day, the Omega Psi Phi frat house in downtown Mobile becomes one of the most popular places to view the parades. Barbecue pits are smoking, parking lots are filled with tailgaters and impromptu step shows break out intermittently.
“New Orleans is like one big college frat party,” explained Jordan Spriggs, a local historian, a lifelong resident of Mobile and one of my unofficial tour guides in Mobile. “Mobile is more like a big family reunion cookout.”
Many of Mobile’s carnival traditions reflect the city’s black history. Costumes and floats explore the history of Africatown, the unincorporated area of the city settled by the captives on the Clotilda, the last slave ship in America. On Sunday morning, people swallow their first drink of the day and consume a Southern breakfast at Kazoola’s, the only black-owned establishment on Dauphin Street—the city’s historic downtown entertainment district. Named after Kazoola—the Yoruba name for Cudjo, the last survivor of the Clotilda—and filled with Africatown memorabilia, owner and Africatown descendant Marc Jackson explained how Mardi Gras was intertwined in the city’s heritage:
Don’t forget to duck.
That’s the key to enjoying the traditional Mardi Gras celebration in Mobile. Like New Orleans, the “Port City” celebration is parade-centric and float riders traditionally shower bystanders with beads and small toys (Nerf footballs are really popular at both). But if one is not careful, in Mobile, you might end up being concussed by the traditional parade accouterments that are uniquely southern—MoonPies and honey buns.
Former NFL player Terrell Owens once called honeybuns “the black man’s steak,” and during Mardi Gras parades in Mobile, they rain down like manna from heaven. However, you are not likely to catch many individual sweet treats because, in Mobile, they throw entire boxes of honey buns and MoonPies.
Chow Hound explains how the tradition started in Mobile:
Cracker Jack had long been a popular Mardi Gras throw; it was affordable enough to give away and delicious enough to appeal to most everyone, but the bulky boxes were hard to aim accurately and the corners could be painful when they hit people in the head. It was such a problem that Mobile banned the tossing of Cracker Jack boxes in 1972. Smaller, softer, blessedly round MoonPies were a safer option, and they were already a long-cherished Southern delight, so they became the standard sweet treat thrown off of floats in Mobile. Once again, New Orleans followed suit—so if you’re in the Big Easy for the occasion, you’re likely to catch at least one MoonPie when you cry, “Throw me something, mister!” And of course, you can still snatch them from the air in Mobile, too.
Unlike the Big Easy, the Port City streets are not packed with merrymakers until the wee hours of the morning. At Mobile’s black Mardi Gras balls, parasol-toting partygoers back dat azz up in gowns and tuxedos while participating in an unacknowledged competition to see whose table sports the biggest feast of seafood and liquor.
Although the French phrase Mardi Gras translates to “Fat Tuesday” in English, Tuesday is not the biggest day of celebration in Mobile. Monday features the MLK Parade, usually the largest black parade of the Shrovetide season. But the most well-attended day event during Shrovetide happens on Joe Cain Day—the Sunday before Mardi Gras—when the entire city participates in a faux-resurrection ceremony dedicated to the man who legend says reignited the Mardi Gras tradition in Mobile when he paraded through the streets and people joined in. Not sponsored by a krewe or civic group like all the other parades, for years, the Joe Cain parade was the only parade where everyone was allowed to join in.
“A lot of people, especially black people, have to work on Monday and Tuesday,” Spriggs explained. “So Joe Cain [Day] is usually the day when everybody comes out.”
And while everyone acknowledges that Mardi Gras is not a black holiday, per se, they also argue that it occupies a unique space in Mobile’s history. “It doesn’t belong to us. It’s everybody’s, to be honest,” said Spriggs. “If you want to want to have a wild time, I’d go to New Orleans.
“But if you’re black,” he added, “you gotta come to Mobile just one time.”