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.


Unknown said...

Thank You!!

Queen Reesie said...

Well stated.
Queen Reesie

Leslie Almeida said...

First, allow me to say that I support your statement. Unfortunately, your sidebar ad partner is popping up malicious adware. Is there a way you can turn that off? I hope for this to reach as many people as possible.

Leslie Almeida said...

As a non-black minority woman, I don't feel that this is my fight to lead, but it is one I am not afraid to support. I am extremely proud to see someone stand up against the majority on this Glambeaux issue. It cheapens feminism and female equality to use it as a defense in the appropriation of black slavery. While I don't think Glambeaux had ill intentions, I do not think they thought this out well enough. I certainly hope they reconsider.

Anonymous said...

I generally agree with you about the disturbing trend of cultural appropriation. However, this post seems like an awfully quick rush to judgment without any actual research (and by that I mean talking to the people involved). For example, the Skinz and Bonez are a primarily white skeleton krewe who provide supporting percussion for Mardi Gras Indians (most frequently Wildman John of the Wild Tchoupitoulas). Is this appropriation acceptable since they were invited or at least embraced by the actual tradition bearers? I'm not the one to answer that, but suggest the answer is more complicated then the open and shut case you present.

Likewise, in regards to the all-female Flambeauxs who you accuse of being "desperate to be seen, to be hip, and be ironic," without apparently haven spoken with any of them, you are missing a very important element. Are you aware that all of the money they raise is going to "Women with a Vision," an organization whose mission is to "improve the lives of marginalized women, their families, and communities by addressing the social conditions that hinder their health and well-being." In no way am I suggesting that this motive justifies appropriating the flambeaux tradition, but it needs to at least be part of the discussion when you are criticizing their motives.

My criticism is not of your viewpoints (which again I largely agree with), but rather your methods of speculation, oversimplification of these issues, and lack of conversation with people directly involved.

Eileen Davis said...

As a child in the 60's, I too had those feelings of discomfort at the flambeaux carriers bending down to get the coins. I can remember my dad explaining that "It is just the way it is." I wanted to hand them the coins instead of throwing it. When I saw the pictures of the glambeaux I had a similar discomfort.

Thank you for describing how I felt. We all need to be more aware of our own social identities and the ways in which we strengthen the oppression without even knowing it. Identifying these structures are fundamentally the first step of many.

Editilla said...

Thanks Jordan. Your eloquent expression of such deep cultural imperialism saves me from having to vomit on them as they bend down for change. Seriously, we could use a Krewe of Pie Throwers yaknowhatimsayin.

Btw I's @Editilla on'da twittas where I first spied your post here.

Anonymous said...

Curious what y'all think about the Kaiju Flambeaux Corps from Chewbacchus the other night?

Anonymous said...

@ Anonymous - good intentions do not absolve inappropriate and racist behavior. Moreover, this tendency of the privileged to focus on their intentions rather than on the consequences of their actions on those whom they inadvertently marginalize and oppress is yet another way in which privilege reinforces itself and avoids the deeper work of becoming empathetic and understanding of another's lived experience. Cultural appropriation for charity is still cultural appropriation

Anonymous said...

Interesting. I also have always found the flambeaux an unfortunate relic of Jim Crow, especially the throwing money. That said, I will pose that cultural appropriation isn't always a bad thing, and in fact can be essential for traditions to evolve and continue, and the Skull and Bones gangs may be a good example of that. In the 1990's, I believe it was down to something like three guys who were keeping it alive, and if the new groups in Bywater or in Krewe d'Etat have rekindled an interest in that tradition, then that's a long term positive.

Anonymous said...

This is a really good criticism of this article. The author allows her own prejudice to get in the way of a real comment on contemporary Mardi Gras. And its been raised elsewhere but the whole idea of a Mardi Gras Indian is the epitomy of cultural appropriation.

Anonymous said...

And who did you appropriate this photo from?

Editor: said...

Photo is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license, and is linked to original at bottom of this post.

STeve said...

"This tendency of the privileged to focus on their intentions rather than on the consequences of their actions on those whom they inadvertently marginalize and oppress is yet another way in which privilege reinforces itself..." I agree with this point, but feel it would carry much greater weight in this context had the author actually explored what those intentions are/were rather than making an uninformed, disparaging blanket criticism of all those involved. As another commenter pointed out, many of these appropriators are welcomed by the indigenous culture bearers. This does not necessarily make it right, but needs to be part of the conversation. Ironically, this situation is not nearly as black and white as the author suggests.

Anonymous said...

You raise some extremely important points here. But an important opportunity for dialogue and exchange is missed because the article is full of assumptions that aren't backed up by research:

1. Be careful when claiming to speak for those who are systematically oppressed. Did you actually speak with any of the male Flambeaux who work the parades? Did you ask the Flambeaux in the Muses parade why they helped to train the Glambeaux? Did you know that they did that? Or would you just dismiss them as inadvertently advancing their own oppression?

2. You are absolutely correct that cultural traditions should not be merely treated as costumes, and that "There should be some element of mutual understanding, equality, and respect for it to be a true cultural exchange – otherwise it is just taking." Did you speak with any of the members of the bone gangs to find out if there was any mutual understanding or cultural exchange taking place? Did you find out if they are just donning costumes?

3. The journalist impeding the progress of the performer was used as an example to back your point. You could have expanded on this and referenced the recent controversy over Mardi Gras Indians' rights to their own images, including receiving payment for same-- but instead, the activity of the journalist appears to be conflated with the experience of parade performers engaging in cultural appropriation.

4. Some of the groups you are criticizing are feminist groups looking to allow female participation in old carnival traditions. I'd love to see some commentary on how the national feminist movement has often implicated itself in advancing white privilege, and how that might intersect with local feminist movements.

5. Musicians from other cities are asking you important questions about why there is no sense of outrage in response to these activities. Your attitude is one of dismissal, as if New Orleans is simply a sad state of affairs and has no sense of self-governance. But it's actually a very important question. New Orleans has such a complicated, unique history having to do with the cultural exchange of many populations, many of them marginalized and oppressed. Carnival and Mardi Gras itself is so deeply rooted in satirical humor, the use of mimicry as an artistic device, and yes, controversial boundary-crossing. Since people ask you this question, why not do more in-depth research on the matter? Of course, you will have to get into traditional uses of mimicry as a form of "paying respect" to ancestors, which in the arts include those who have influenced your work. You'll see a lot of that in film, for example.

5. You say that the "the traditions that originated and existed in the African-American community are suddenly receiving praise and attention - but not for its originators." Can you give us examples backing up this statement? How does the evolution of new groups replace the activities of old ones, especially if some of them work to give credit where it is due?

6. "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." Carnival is performed by social aid and pleasure groups, many of which are working against such restrictions. For me this brings up the question of how the popularization/ adaptation of certain traditions will affect the fight against over-regulations and discriminatory restrictions. This, too, is an important question.

Anonymous said...

The Glambeaux would like to let the community know about our deep respect for the flambeaux tradition and our awareness of its cultural and historical implications. 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 parade, and Muses is still retaining the traditional male 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.

Our group has no wish to replace the traditional flambeaux. Any social commentary that we intend to make is solely about feminism and gender equality. We want to present a statement that women are just as capable of carrying the weight and lasting the whole route as the men are, and we chose to walk with Muses because we wanted to add another all-female element to an all-female parade.

Our focus on female empowerment is the reason why, from the very beginning, it has been our intent to use our group as a platform to support the group Women with a Vision. Created by and for women of color, WWAV is a non-profit run by a group of amazing women who put in long hours with little funding to address social injustice against marginalized women in New Orleans. All of the tips that we receive on the parade route are going directly to WWAV. In addition, two of the Glambeaux have organized a donation program through the restaurants Tivoli and Lee and The Lucky Rooster to give one dollar from the sale of every “Glambeaux Punch” to Women with a Vision as well.

The women in my group have not taken on this job lightly. We have been training for this march for almost eight weeks, 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.

The Glambeaux group is made up of women who honor and cherish the cultural heritage and legacy of New Orleans and do not wish to appear irreverent or disrespectful in any way.

Happy Carnival, and so much love,

Dani Johnson
Founder of the Glambeaux

Just Because said...

Let's continue to water down history in this "post racial" society. Great article and jumping off point for discussion at ALL levels. FYI... donations to a feminist organization does NOT justify the means. If you want to " educate the community... support its youth. Given the money to Tamborine and Fans!!! Wait you Do know who they are right??? I mean you did study the history beyond how can we be in a parade right???

Just Because said...

How many African American or women of color are in your group?

Anonymous said...

Well said Dani. I've lived in several cities with deep traditions but never anywhere as closed minded as New Orleans. I get it, you have traditions that date back generations. Many of them based in racism, segregation and slavery. The fact that the "natives" are so dead set on keeping them visible further agitates the population and racial relations. These women are raising money for charity and showing the Mardi Gras spirit through their actions. I'm certain there are many other people that have moved here from other places that find many of the New Orleans traditions offensive and based in an era that most of us would like to forget our country ever had.

I support any group that tries to help others through their efforts and will support Glambeaux on Thursday.

Anonymous said...

Oh my dears...choose your battles. This is a footnote and you give these ladies more head space than they deserve

Anonymous said...

Proud New Orleanian:

One small historical error - slavery ended with the Emancipation Proclamation in 1862. The first Mardi Gras parade did not occur until 1892. The original flambeau might have been former slaves, but they could not have been slaves.

Just like everything else we do in New Orleans or Louisiana that you can only experience here, this is another example of the "outside" world trying to change our culture. NO ONE FORCES ANYONE TO DO ANYTHING HE OR SHE DOESN'T WANT TO DO.

Anonymous said...

Another point worthy of deeper reflection is the writer's insistence that the flambeaux tradition "should be abolished as a demeaning and sad part of American history." With a more thorough understanding of history herself she would realize there are numerous traditions and monuments throughout the world (the Auschwitz memorial in Poland is one) that exist as stark reminders of the injustices wrought on fellow human being in the hope they will not be repeated.

Eddie Said said...

You've got to be less one-sided than this. Very little research. Zero, it seems, into the Glambeaux themselves. I'm not defending them, but please don't fall into the trap of defending the "defenseless" -- its just as insulting as the claims your levying against these Glambeaux. Furthermore, if you'd like to actually reach people (and change some minds) and not just reinforce previously held beliefs, please try to have some semblance of impartiality.

Appropriation is bad because it implies a disrespect/theft of the history or traditions involved. Then, I really think you have to actually discuss what they're doing. What irony are they trying to point out? Are they perhaps more complex than you're understanding?

Trust me, my beliefs are fully equipped to align with what you're saying (and they mostly do), but for the purposes of "justice," please put in a little more effort to take this out of your corner and bring the rhetoric to a place that might actually convince someone who's not yet convinced.

Anonymous said...

Krewe riders were all male, & all white, once upon a time.
I dig this idea. Go Glambeaux!

Anonymous said...

In 1956, the NAACP threatened to ask Zulu to discontinue its parade because it "degrades and ridicules the Negro race." Calling for the abolition of flambeaux carriers seems to me to be analogous to that misguided effort. I applaud the writer for starting this discussion, but in this case I think the outrage is misplaced. A more appropriate response might be simply to roll your eyes and laugh in the same way I roll my eyes and laugh at Uptown society pretending to be royalty. Mardi Gras ultimately belongs to the people.

Jacquelyn Hughes Mooney, artist said...

Why is research needed? You've proving her point! Everything doesn't have to be research & discussed to death! In the meantime running roughshod over culture that is the very thing why people want to be here continues.

It is like Pat Boone "covering" Little Richard! Please"

Jacquelyn Hughes Mooney, artist said...

Agreed in every sense.

Anonymous said...

Well said! " the road to destruction is paved with good intentions".

Anonymous said...

Thank you! In the midst of a clever retort to the writer, I appreciate you, the Editor, clarification.

Anonymous said...

I too have lived in other communities far more rigid then New Orleans.

Being "open-minded" has lead the way for a lot of garbage to come in often to the detriment of "the natives". Your remarks borders closely to arrogance, unfortunately.

Please note that I do feel, somewhat that the trying new things enhances the world around but you do not plop the elephant in the room without the considerations of the owner's home!

This city has gone throw so much in nearly 9 years including carpetbaggers who has no regard other then lining their pockets that the sometimes hypersensitivity is understandable.

Who are you to dictate the lives & traditions of others because what? You said so? The questions are merely rhetorical.

Anonymous said...

According to CNN the first parade rolled in New Orleans in 1837.

Just Because said...


Anonymous said...

As a fellow 10th generation New Orleanian (one came with Bienville and married the daughter of a deported salt smuggler), I think your commentary reeks of been-here-longer-than-thou bullschmidt. You don't own these traditions - we all do - and these traditions have always morphed, evolved, devolved, etc to reflect the times. Hello? King Cake. Do I need to say more? Today's stuffed king cake bears no resemblance whatsoever to a traditional Gateau du Roi, and yet the world keeps spinning.
If you're that concerned with honoring traditions, do what I do, which is what my grandmother did - raise up those who come after you to love and understand NOLA. Back to the king cake example - all of my descendants are fully aware that they will burn in hell if they eat King Cake after Ash Wednesday or before Epiphany. And worse, they'll look like tourists. Same thing with beads. You will never catch any offspring of mine wearing Mardi Gras beads out of season. Because they'll be mistaken for tourists and mugged, obviously. Now - do we run around telling people not to eat king cake or wear beads in July because they'll end up burning in hell after they've been mugged? No. No we do not. Because we're fucking hospitable New Orleanians. We just quietly raise a disapproving eyebrow, snicker a little and personally abstain from those gauche cultural missteps.
There are many things I could raise my fists and rail against in this changing cultural landscape, but I find it far more effective to impart the traditions, knowledge and love on an individual level - to curse those that come behind me the way my grandmother cursed me - to instill in another human being that rabid, intransigent devotion to this ever-sinking sliver, and hope for the best.

Ashley Boudreaux

Anonymous said...

I'm a native of New Orleans and a traditionalist. I don't like things to change. But they do change and I've come to accept it (wisdom with age). I had the same "appropriation of culture" thoughts when I first read about the Glambeaux. In the past nine years I am amazed to see and hear what people think is "traditional" New Orleans. I cringe when I see people wearing costumes to parades - you are only supposed to mask on Mardi Gras! And who decided king cakes should be sold with the baby outside of the cake? Really, you can't feel a plastic baby in your mouth without swallowing it? Anyway, those traditions are not that important in the greater scheme of things. I think we have to learn to accept the that our traditions are being altered by the new New Orleanians. But we also need to continue to discuss and explore our culture. So thanks for bringing this out for discussion.

Anonymous said...

Did anyone ever answer the question, "How many African American or women of color are in this group?"

Anonymous said...

The glambeaux seem to be about gender equality and empowerment. Just like Muses. That is a good thing. They don't detract from the traditional flambeaux. They call attention to the differences by their existance. If they had never marched...we would not be having this discussion. Perhaps the next question to ask is..why have women of any color not been allowed to be flambeaux until this group decided it was time women could hold the fire that lights the parades ? Has no one ever heard of Hestia? Personally ...I have a hard time with the propane flambeaux. And in terms of history ..1981 saw the end of the law that made women "chattel" or property of their husbands. So....Some "traditions" need to change. But mainly...the city is sinking....the sea levels are rising... and we may not have a new Orleans to celebrate Mardi gras.. love it all while you can. I'm a pest ship descendent.indentured servent...Baker...seventh generation king cake baby. As far as I can go back... it is always important to remember...that Mardi gras is a Catholic celebration of meat eating and merriment before lent. That has been lost by the commodification of culture. And the commercialization and formalization of a Catholic holiday by non catholics. But that is another story.... Most of all.. thank you for starting the discussion. - peace to you all this carnival season

Steven said...

"Love is a many-splendored thing"!