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.


Anonymous said...

Well said Dani! Rock on! We'll be cheering tomorrow

IvyExpress said...

Thank you very much for your well thought out response. I am supportive of your efforts and am excited to see The Glambeaux tomorrow night. Cheers to adding to the merriment of Mardi Gras in our fine city!

Anonymous said...

Here, lemme sum it up...
Gianna: Your shit is RUDE, basically.
Dani: I know, but we already spent the money, gurl, so I'm gonna talk about some random "history" shit and we're still gonna parade, k?

Anonymous said...

Empowered women make for stronger communities and a more equal and just world. I am very excited to see this tradition strengthened by the inclusion of ladies.

Anonymous said...

This is no worse then many of the things being done in this city now, the question is, is it better.

Royal Street Blues said...

So how many African American women are part of the Glambeaux?

hoodoonola said...

I have the same question as Royal Street Blues and would like to add that most white women in New Orleans are already empowered, so .... and how is the GLAM empowering, anyway? Why would you call yourselves that?

Anonymous said...

Don't see any African American woman. And how many are these ladies are from NOLA? Probably less than more.

Anonymous said...

not everyone gets to do everything. the women of glambeaux seem smart and well intentioned, but you gotta consider the implications and what it symbolizes for mostly white, mostly transplants grafting themselves onto an ancient tradition because it seems fun.

this is akin to the white "bywater bones boys" newcomers availing themselves to the nearly 200 year old skull and bones gang tradition.

i understand wanting to participate but you gotta be careful. the black folks of this city have payed their dues in the way white transplants haven't. so if you're a bywater bohemian or a mid-city young professional and you're under the callio bridge tomorrow night don't fight with a black family over a muses shoe, yield, don't elbow your way to the street, yield. you symbolize invasion. you symbolize high rents, you symbolize less available jobs.

the wine bar on st claude may be very nice, but it symbolizes something. there's a yoga studio on freret, there's a whole foods where a schegmanns used to be. it's a touchy situation. we've already lost new york and san francisco. be careful how you work yourself into new orleans. your enthusiastic embrace may choke it.

Anonymous said...

The Glambeaux are following the grand old Mardi Gras tradition whereby a group of people who are excluded from joining the existing group, form their own. Zulu, Muses, 610 Stompers, and so many countless others were born of this same predicament. I'm sure those groups had their skeptics, but they are now established and cherished. But these groups all brought something new to the table besides just gender or race. The question is can the Glambeaux bring something new, or will they simply be seen as impostors, gentrifiers, and culture thieves.

Anonymous said...

Is this the post modern black face?

Anonymous said...

I guess I didn't realize white people aren't allowed to take a stand against social injustices. I also didn't realize women (white women included) had no empowerment issues. That just clears everything up. I'll make sure to remember to scold any white female New Orleans Public school teachers I come across. Oh, and damn those women who help with Habitat for Humanity! How could they pick up TOOLS to help with any city rebuild?! This argument, like so many other's comments, are ridiculous.Let a women - whether she is white, black, or any other race - carry a torch. And may the proceeds help the city grow, regardless of where it came from.

Anonymous said...

I would say Dani you have increased a racial divide. you have alienated black women. then to patronize them by "throwing" change to a black organization. You know what you're doing....and dear Dani using the word "fear" is old slave mentality. You have dug yourself so deep. I can only wish anyone well....just know you have created a racial monster. It's the equivalent of coming out as a white mardi gras indian gang. I can just hear the N word rolling off your tongue.

Anonymous said...

you're still missing the point. this isn't problematic because they are women, it's problematic because they are white and because they choose the flambeau.

though they may not perceive themselves as such, the real flambeau are telling a story, they are paying homage. they retell the story of slavery in new orleans every year. it's potent, sacred, and somber, and it's not the glambeaux's story to tell.

similarly, the indian tradition may be rather patriarchal, but that doesn't mean we need a tribe of "white pocha-honeys" to throw some glitter, disco, and cluelessness at it in efforts to set it free.

Anonymous said...

that's what i think!! it feels this way to me and I'm a white girl. ugh.

Anonymous said...

Despite all your good intentions, I still feel you are wrong. It's not your intentions that count. I'm a white girl, in case you wondered. I have to say when I heard about this group it made me cringe. I do hope you'll be able to find another way to honor the cause and the people you are trying to honor.

Head o' Hair said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

Wow, not into this idea of Glambeaux at ALL. Looks like a bunch of white, middle to upper class ladies marketing themselves on facebook and other social media outlets. The cool kids doing it for "female empowerment".

This isn't grassroots at all, it's exclusive and I might add, offensive to the tradition of flambeaux in New Orleans community.

There's nothing wrong with female empowerment groups -- more power to you! But please, recognize that it's catering to a specific group located in NOLA (white hipsters) and that re-appropriating a tradition belonging to the black male community is problematic to many folks.

Bickerstaff said...

The problem that I have with the open letter is that the writer keeps saying things like "Mardi Gras is now inclusive of everyone," "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," etc.

Mardi Gras - in more aspects than not - is still very segregated. And she seems completely unaware of that fact. How many people of color are riding in Proteus, Chaos, Krewe D'Etat, Babylon, or Rex? Last week the Krewe of Dorians presented a tableau which involved 20 white men trotting out in black face to represent Ray Nagin's 20 convictions. They were then "shot" by a group of Confederate soldiers that danced over the corpses while Dixie played. And the next day, the debutante's photos from that ball were published in the News Paper.

This is not occurring in a vacuum. We have not achieved a "post racial" Mardi Gras. The hashtag #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen was trending not that long ago. For a long time many women of color have - and understandably so - had a hard time finding a place at the feminist table.