Tuesday, February 25, 2014

A Response From The Glambeaux

The letter below is a response to the commentary by Gianna Chachere, Glambeaux: Taking Cultural Appropriation Too Far, published yesterday on this blog.


Thank you for sharing your thoughts with the online community. Many of the Glambeaux forwarded me your article, and I feel very strongly that this issue is an opportunity for dialogue and I am glad to address it. I hear your statements and see your perspective. I know that it's impossible to divorce the historical implications from the physical act of just carrying a torch in a parade, and I am aware that there are people in the community who are hurt. I'd like to respond with two ideas, because it appears that there are two issues at stake: whether the tradition should still exist at all because of the nature of its origins, and whether or not any new group of people should be allowed to participate in the tradition. Some of these thoughts have already been expressed in an open letter on the Glambeaux Facebook page, but I’m expanding upon those ideas here.

To address the first issue, I do think that this is an opportunity to question what has evolved over time since the origin of the flambeaux and ask why the tradition still exists. I think that it's possible to reconcile the flambeaux's exploitative origins when we consider the fact that some of the veteran flambeaux carriers today are proud of what they do, have been doing it for years, and sometimes have had family members that have been in the parades for generations. Some of them have made a deliberate choice to view the torch bearing as an art and a skill of which they are proud, and I think they are entitled to own their own story. At times, an exploited group of people can take ownership of something by changing their perspective about it and thus changing the intent and meaning behind their actions. In the case of the flambeaux, this new ownership has been made possible because the context of the march and Mardi Gras has changed; the torches are no longer viewed as a menial labor and are now a form of entertainment, and Mardi Gras is now inclusive of everyone.

Since it is an undeniable fact that some of the traditional flambeaux regard their participation in the parades with pride, we want to pay respect to those men and their perspective. It is because of this respect that we have made some purposeful choices from the beginning to honor the traditional flambeaux. The Glambeaux are only marching in one all-female parade, and Muses is still retaining the traditional flambeaux in the parade as well. Muses has also chosen to place the traditional flambeaux ahead of us in the parade line-up because we understand that they came first and we want to honor that.

The women in my group have not taken on this job lightly. We have been training for this march for two months, because we do understand that it’s a responsibility as well as a privilege. We have been introduced as a group to four traditional flambeaux carriers who spent some time teaching us some of their signature moves and giving us safety tips. At the end of our meeting we applauded these men and they applauded us back. The spirit of the meeting was one of mutual admiration, respect, and collaboration. 

When I had the idea to form this group, I did a lot of research on the history of the flambeaux. I was prepared that this conversation about cultural appropriation and entitlement was going to happen and I am glad to participate in the dialogue. What I hoped people would see, though, is that the conversation I wanted to have first was about how a group of women taking on this task, regardless of their race, makes people uncomfortable. I wanted to open the conversation with a discussion about female empowerment as the lens through which to view the other elements of the issue.

We have encountered some very serious resistance from older New Orleanians about the idea that we, as women, are physically unable to carry the torches. We have also been told that we are going to be more of a danger than the men are. Maybe it will come as a surprise to some that we are encountering this kind of gender discrimination. I wonder if some New Orleanians' perspectives are going to be dramatically shifted when they look at this group of women flambeaux and for the first time are forced to confront the question of why our community still expects to see only African American men in the role when virtually every other aspect of Mardi Gras has been integrated. If the problem is that the role of the flambeaux reminds us of an uglier period in history, then shouldn't we want to revise the tradition to reflect the standards of society today? When an old white woman tells me I can't carry the torch, is she saying that because she's used to seeing a black man stooping over to pick a coin up off the ground? If that's the case, then I am more than happy to challenge that person's view of the world. I want a person like that to see me on the parade route and feel uncomfortable and realize that there is institutionalized racism still happening in our city. In this respect, I hope you will agree that what we're doing has the potential to be a catalyst for positive change and greater awareness, and that a statement about feminism can be used as a tool to shed light on other issues in a helpful way. 

Cultural appropriation is an emotional topic. I do understand where people are coming from, because I see what their fears are and fear is a powerful emotion. They fear that they will be forgotten or not given the credit that they are due. They fear that we are mocking their history or being disrespectful. They fear that we are new kids in town who don't understand New Orleans. On that note, I’d like to take the opportunity to broadcast a more accurate picture of who the women are in this group.

We are made up of social workers, dedicated social justice activists, professionals, artists, creators, healers, mothers, teachers, volunteers, and strong leaders in our chosen careers and our community. We all care deeply about this city and our place here. Some of the Glambeaux are native New Orleanians, and many of us, myself included, have lived here for many years and consider this to be our chosen home. We are friends with our neighbors, we dance at second lines, we open our homes during festivals, and we volunteer our time for causes that are dear to our hearts. We are not a group of hipsters taking something out of its cultural context, nor are we trying to be ironic. 

Mardi Gras traditions have evolved and changed a lot over time, the way that all things in life are wont to do. Our statement is about feminism, though I do realize that it cannot be divorced from the cultural, racial, and class issues that are wrapped up in the history of flambeaux as well. That's why there has been some pushback. Change is hard, but it can be less hurtful if there is a respectful dialogue. We know that we are coming from a place of love and female empowerment. Some members of the community may need some time to understand that. Some of them may never understand it. 

The flambeaux have existed for over 150 years and are part of the complex cultural legacy of New Orleans. I think the question that's really on the table is how can we, as a community, come to a consensus about going forward with a perspective that is just and inclusive for everyone? In an ideal world, where real healing can happen, we can acknowledge and respect the gravity of the past, mourn for the wrong that has been done, and then make some decisions about how to work on our issues together to determine how we want to feel in the future. At the end of the day, I think it’s important to remember that the spirit of Mardi Gras today is about celebration, joy, and togetherness in the community. There is room for everyone in the Mardi Gras tradition. Let's not forget that historically, Mardi Gras itself came to us from another culture, and our expressions of Carnival in New Orleans are different than the ways it's celebrated in other parts of the world. Mardi Gras, by design, is a living and breathing phenomenon that incorporates and absorbs new twists on old traditions every year.

Thank you again for your letter. I hope that even if you cannot agree with my position that at least you may be able to see that our group takes this issue very seriously and endeavors to treat it with the consideration it deserves.


Dani Johnson
Founder of the Glambeaux

Photo by Bart Everson, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

Rest In Power, Mayor Chokwe Lumumba, 1947 - 2014

Chokwe Lumumba, a leader of the Republic of New Afrika and recently elected mayor of Jackson, Mississippi, has died.

Mayor Lumumba was a lifetime civil rights activist, and active in post-Katrina struggles in New Orleans, through the People's Hurricane Relief Fund. As a human rights lawyer, he represented many high-profile clients, including both Assata Shakur and Tupac Shakur. Although only mayor for about a year, he had excited progressives around the world, as an unapologetic revolutionary elected to a capital city in the US south. Below is an Al Jazeera news profile of Mayor Lumumba from shortly after his election.

Chokwe Lumumba from Jazeera Clips on Vimeo.

Below are edited excerpts from Mayor Lumumba's campaign website:
Chokwe Lumumba, Esq. was born August 2, 1947 in Detroit, Michigan. He earned his Bachelor’s degree in Political Science from Kalamazoo College in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Lumumba later finished 1st in his Law School freshman class before graduating cum laude from Wayne State University Law School.  
Since 1968 Chokwe Lumumba crisscrossed the globe fighting for “Human Rights for Human Beings.” Lumumba is known for his work in support of the survivors of Katrina, by serving on the Board of the People’s Hurricane Relief Fund, by organizing other activists to form the Mississippi Disaster Relief Coalition, and by co-organizing the Gulf Coast Survivors Assembly.  
Mayor Lumumba’s work as a community activist has spanned over four decades. He worked with organizations such as Jackson Human Rights Coalition to help pressure the State to retry the person who murdered Medgar Evers. He worked for over 20 years organizing, directing, coaching, and mentoring youth through programs such as the Jackson Panthers Basketball Organization. Lumumba was also a co-founder and member of the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement. Mayor Lumumba was a nationally renowned attorney, who represented clients in over 16 jurisdictions, including Canada and the Choctaw Court. He worked in high profile cases such as the representation of the late Tupac Shakur. He helped win the release of the Scott Sisters in 2011 who had served 16 years of double life prison sentences for an $11.00 (eleven-dollar) robbery which they did not commit. He successfully represented Lance Parker who was falsely accused of assault during the 1992 LA uprising which followed the brutal beating of Rodney King. 
Chokwe Lumumba was a devoted husband and father. His wife Nubia A. Lumumba passed away in 2003. Chokwe leaves behind three children - Kambon Mutope, Rukia Kai and Chokwe Antar Lumumba.
We send our love to his family and to the people of Jackson.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Glambeaux: Taking Cultural Appropriation Too Far, by Gianna Chachere

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 citizensNew 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.