Every day New Orleans is faced with crime, racist activity and the never-ending gentrification debate. But there is something about Glambeaux, the new all-female flambeaux troupe marching in Thursday’s Muses parade, that forces me to speak. I’ve had enough with the appropriation of my culture/home by those desperate to be seen, to be hip, and be ironic.
The cultural appropriation of New Orleans has a very long pre- Katrina history but it has accelerated quickly in the last few years. After the storm, the acculturation by the “New” New Orleanians has zigzagged its way into every facet of New Orleans culture and identity. “Natives” and "Non-Natives” alike, desperate to revive the economy and speed recovery, have relied on the city’s unique cultural life to bring the city back from the brink of extinction. For example, Mayor Mitch Landrieu invited Mardi Gras Indians and the Rebirth Brass Band to perform at his inauguration.
What’s clear and disturbing is that this cultural appropriation won't end anytime soon and that the damage caused seeps into every aspect of daily life. The city’s cultural landscape is saturated with new incarnations of rituals and events that have morphed into meaningless trends, giving them a significance that is completely different and less nuanced than its original intent. In particular, the traditions that originated and existed in the African-American community are suddenly receiving praise and attention - but not for its originators.
This occurs at a time when the city continues to enforce restrictions on cultural activity in African American communities while neglecting to bring social and economic progress to all the city’s citizens. New Orleans has long been a patchwork of different cities, each new wave of immigration attached on top of the still visible last, incorporating the intricacies of local traditions and culture. Within these neighborhoods, there existed invisible boundaries and a general respect for the traditions/culture held within. New Orleans has always resisted a “curated” urban space representing a single-minded expression. That resistance has allowed the city to flourish and entice new comers with a unique cultural landscape. Far from suggesting that we resist new traditions and rituals, I ask those engaged in these new trends to consider the history behind these traditions/rituals and understand that using someone else’s cultural symbols to satisfy one’s own personal need for self-expression is a selfish exercise in privilege and entitlement.
Have the Glambeaux krewe done any basic research on the history of the flambeaux? After a 30-second search on the Internet, I found the following: ”The original flambeau carriers were slaves of the wealthy that organized the parades. After the abolition of slavery, the carriers continued to be all African-Americans and it is only until very recently (and still very rarely) that other races participate in the tradition. For their work, carriers are paid a small fee by the parading krewe but the bulk of the money made from the evening comes in the form of coins or dollars thrown from the crowd. Twirling and general clowning are expected from the carriers, which brings more money raining down.”
Of course the Glambeaux have a right to do whatever they choose to do. Many argue that the Mardi Gras’ motto of “do what ya wanna” allows total artistic expression to exist and flourish but I feel that there should be recognition of what came before and an acknowledgement of those who created these traditions. And why would you want to glamorize something rooted so deeply in desperation and racism?
As a very young girl in the 1970’s, watching the flambeau made me feel uncomfortable. Neglecting to consider the history behind this tradition is insensitive and disrespectful. I don’t think we should uphold the flambeau tradition as something sacred. In fact, it should be abolished as a demeaning and sad part of American history.
The recent proliferation of young white folks who wear skull and bones costumes or better known as “skeleton gangs” that roam the streets of New Orleans on Mardi Gras is another example. Wearing a skull and bones costume is an “experience” for a white person to enjoy for a short time and discard later without a consideration for the history behind the mask. There should be some element of mutual understanding, equality, and respect for it to be a true cultural exchange – otherwise it is just taking. The Glambeaux krewe doesn’t wear their gear in a vacuum and there are many social and historical implications to treating this tradition merely as costumes. African Americans created their own Mardi Gras traditions because they were in effect shut out of white Catholic and Protestant celebrations (with the exception of Flambeau carrying).
Costuming for Mardi Gras Indians and skeleton gangs historically derived from a deep desire to perform and contribute and has never been a profit making entity. In fact, the tradition has continued due to the economic sacrifice of those involved, which appears to be lost on those currently mimicking the tradition.
As a tenth-generation New Orleanian, I am also a “New” New Orleanian. I moved back to the city after 16 years, purchased a home and look forward to enjoying my community of family and friends. What angers me is that through conversation, I realize my family’s personal history, historical knowledge and childhood memories, are registered as irrelevant to those intent on ignoring and disrespecting the social and historical complexity of this city. At 2013 Super Sunday, I saw a young man walk backward while furiously taking photos of Mardi Gras Indians. His “documenting” blocked the Indians’ ability to walk forward and impeded others from enjoying the spectacle. When I mentioned to the young man that he was obstructing everyone there to enjoy the day, he said, “don’t be a hater” and “mind my own business.” Respect, understanding and general good manners ARE my business and should be the business of everyone in the community. I’m fed up that this behavior is acceptable and lauded but also I’m fed up that my feelings of pain over the current state of culture and community in New Orleans is ridiculed. There is a profound loss and for those who recognize it – we should not be made to feel negative or hyperbolic about preserving the city’s history and culture.
People get defensive when you call them on culture appropriation because it threatens their sense of entitlement. Recently I hosted musicians from Toulouse, France and administrators from a New York-based foundation that supports programming in New Orleans. Both groups asked me the same question, how can the appropriation of New Orleans culture be so rampant and why are people not furious about the level of disrespect and entitlement forced upon the community by this behavior. People say you had to be in Paris in the ’20s or New York in the ’80s or New Orleans pre-Katrina. The disappointing truth is that you no longer need to be anywhere in particular anymore - ignorance and tastelessness is everywhere and has been taken to a whole new level.
Photo credit: New Orleans Mardi Gras: Flambeaux carriers, Krewe of Orpheus night parade, photo by Derek Bridges, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.