The ongoing national debate over race and Confederate monuments reared its ugly head during this year’s Mardi Gras. Some of the infamous beads thrown into the crowds reflected the image of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee to protest the removal of his statue from New Orleans’ most prominent traffic circle, which has been a symbolic focal point of parade routes—hence the bead’s name, “Forever Lee Circle.”
There were also Confederate-flag beads, T-shirts and an old image of the statue clandestinely projected on to City Hall. The Lee monument was removed by Mayor Mitch Landrieu on May 19, 2017, after steady pressure from the #TakeEmDownNOLA movement.
Initially, the bead controversy mostly played out on local blogs and social media, but concerns over racism at Mardi Gras intensified this week after blackface figurines began popping up. In a statement to the Southern Poverty Law Center, “Forever Lee Circle” creator “Mikas Eaux” insisted that “the beads serve as a conduit to take the stigma out of Southern history.”
Allies like Save Nola Heritage publicized the trinket as a fun, celebratory way to preserve history, deploying the hashtag #ThrowWhatchaWanna to equate the beads with free speech. But as progressives pointed out, the hashtag ironically evoked the upbeat, brassy jazz anthem “Do Whatcha Wanna,” by Rebirth Brass Band, which is composed entirely of Afro-Creole and African-American musical elements.
This bitter exchange may seem out of place for an event known for apolitical merrymaking, but the collision of race and revelry is actually in keeping with Mardi Gras’ long racial history. It’s not the first time that white supremacists have used the parade in service of their goals.
In fact, the parading tradition itself grows right out of white anxiety over mixing and mingling between free and enslaved, black and white, rich and immigrant.
Before the 1850s, the New Orleanian celebration was more akin to the Carnevale of Venice, with its egalitarian street-level revelry and festivities. Contemporaneous newspapers and travelers reported sensationalized violence and sexual depravity of new immigrant populations, especially the Irish (who had not yet become white), and the alleged intimacy between white “ladies” and masked black men occurring during Carnival.
After the Louisiana Purchase, the growing English-speaking, Protestant population attempted to curtail the Carnival tradition celebrated by the Catholic Creoles. Early attempts failed, but by 1856, a tentative alliance between white Americans and white Creoles of the city’s slaveholding and professional classes established the Mistick Krewe of Comus and transformed Carnival into the form we know today, a preapproved parade route followed in a neat, linear fashion.
In 1857 the Comus Krewe introduced the tableaux vivant, or living picture, to Mardi Gras, which featured members of the secret society in elaborate costumes and posed upon lavishly decorated floats. The original floats presented allegories from classic mythology and literature, such as Milton’s Paradise Lost. Members were explicit about their motives—in order to salvage Mardi Gras from what they saw as cultural degeneration, they presented the best of Anglophone culture and art and literally raised the city’s elite white men to aspirational levels above the crowd.
During Reconstruction, New Orleans’ white elites used the pomp and ceremony of Mardi Gras to reassert symbolic and political control after the Confederacy’s defeat. The Louisiana Constitution of 1868 ushered in desegregated schools and public transportation, recognized the citizenship of African Americans, and granted the right to vote and hold office to African-American men without property requirements. Local white men perceived this new racial equality as a threat and were eager to recapture their former power.
Carnival krewes took their political arguments to the streets and manipulated their festive displays to provide evidence of the illegitimacy and incongruity of black citizenship.
The Crescent City Democratic Club, later renamed the Crescent City White League, whose stated goal was to prevent the “Africanization” of New Orleans and Louisiana, formed the city’s second krewe in 1870. The Twelfth Night Revelers regularly caricatured African-American lawmakers as bumbling crows or backward strongmen.
Comus presented its infamous “the Missing Links to Darwin’s Origin of Species” and “the Aryan Race” themes in 1873 and 1877, respectively. The former theme culminated with an anthropomorphic crowned gorilla standing in contrast against a white Comus, suggesting the innate inferiority of black men holding civic office. In like fashion, the Knights of Momus displayed comical yet grotesque representations of mixed-race people among equally grotesque animal hybrids in its 1873 parade themed “the Coming Races.”
Mardi Gras had become a mode by which former slaveholders and Confederate sympathizers could maintain symbolic power and communicate ideas of white supremacy, social Darwinism and the “Lost Cause” even under the city’s interracial Republican government.
Over the last century, African Americans, women and LGBTQ people have all established parading organizations that have at times directly and indirectly challenged the elite white male control of Mardi Gras.
In recent years, there has been searing political satire of the response to Hurricane Katrina and the 2016 election. This progress, however, only further demonstrates how the revelry and debauchery of Carnival does not have an inherent political bent. Carnival is a fluid, flexible form and, thus, allows for both progressive and prejudiced values to flourish. This year, my social media newsfeed was filled with posts bemoaning the Knights of Chaos’ floats lampooning Colin Kaepernick, kneeling NFL players and Dreamers.
In the end, sometimes racism looks like swastikas and tiki torches, but sometimes it looks like a parade.
Frederick Staidum Jr., Ph.D., is a scholar of 19th-century American culture and literature at Loyola University Chicago and a Public Voices Fellow with the Op-Ed Project. Follow him on Twitter.