One of my favorite local writers, Charles Cannon, wrote something a few years back about Carnival that I think about each year. He said firmly to not believe those precious commentators who say that the 19th century was the Golden Age of Carnival-
Instead, he insists THIS is its Golden Age.
In case you care, some of the key attributes he assigns to the classic “Carnivalesque” narrative include:
-a satirical impulse of a bawdy kind that literary critic Bakhtin called “grotesque realism,”
-the inversion of normal prevailing social hierarchies,
-and mass participation…
But of course those have long been present in New Orleans and have remained so across many eras, including those not as wonderful. So why a Golden Age?
Cannon makes his case by outlining more recent developments:
-The desegregation of Carnival, which began in the 1980s. Yes I said the NINETEEN 80s. The city insisting that any organization that paraded on city streets be integrated certainly changed the dynamic of Carnival from that moment on. Some of the old line racist krewes gave up their public role in Carnival rather than integrate, and other of these power centers integrated and actually began to do community work (that they said) that they had been organized to do long ago. All of those changes were much less than they should have been (and still need to be) , but many did happen. Maybe most importantly, those few krewes are no longer the only authority.
-The profusion of new dance and marching clubs like the early ones of Pussy Footers and the 610 Stompers, and the later, ingeniously designed Laissez Boys (yes they parade on motorized Lazy Boys), among the many, many working on intricate dance steps and humorous jabs at modern life, all to add life at people-level in between the massive floats. It’s easy to join one of these, and made for the slightly clumsy but game New Orleanian.
-where else are school bands and dance/flag troops so revered but in New Orleans? That is a direct effect from performing brilliantly on their own streets in parade after parade.
-Cannon also suggests that the downtown walking parades revived in the Quarter after float parades were banished from the old part of the city around 1970, are a main reason for the golden age. It is clear that their effect on the Carnival culture is significantly higher than the creaky, huge, glittery float parades on St. Charles uptown. Krewe du Vieux is rightly the best known of the downtown parades and the one that Cannon is using in his description as it is the only true float parade in the Quarter.
(I nominate my favorite parade of ‘titRex to be viewed alongside its Uptown counterpart Rex to show how much they differ. Utilizing the local school tradition of shoebox float making, this small krewe offers a much appreciated satirical but tiny view of handmade New Orleans, unlike any other.)
shoebox float of ‘tit Rex (short for petit Rex)
The traditional Boeuf Gras float in Rex, or fatted ox, the ancient symbol of the last meat to be eaten before the beginning of the Lenten fast
I’d also add the increase in handmade costumes including the gorgeous hand beaded homage that white residents make to honor our deep and prevailing Mardi Gras Indians authenticity- specifically, the beaded work of Dames De Perlage, and the dried beans and glue masterpieces of the Lundi Gras’ Red Beans Parade , which I believe spun off another called the Dead Beans Parade. All of the new iterations are meant to honor the beadwork of our African American and Native blue-collared heroes. As a matter of fact, one of the Dames De Perlage said on social media this year that a Mardi Gras Indian told her that she had some “good patches” and she knew it was the highest compliment possible.
And Cannon doesn’t mention it, but the gay Carnival in the Quarter which was a stalwart in the otherwise dreary 1970s, holding the creative fort until the rest of us showed back up is absolutely is one of the reasons for this Golden Age. The Bourbon Street Awards alone deserve mention, both for the community and glamor they have added and for their unlikely attendees..
His main point is that the public Fat Tuesday revelry downtown is what makes this the Golden Age. From Skull and Bones Gangs banging on doors at daybreak, to the appearance of the Indians and Baby Dolls, to the citywide crockpot red beans and gumbo offered to new and old friends along the routes to refortify, to the almost never-ending Tuesday walking parades (at least one of has participants that take the time to honor its dead) and last but not least, the day-long perambulation and public visitation that happens everywhere, but really is centered between Canal and the 9th ward, with a special nod to Orleans and Claiborne on what we all say to each other “is just a Tuesday every where else.”
…But the ultimate expression of the carnivalesque instinct in our time is what happens downtown on Fat Tuesday itself. Here the line between spectator and performer is almost totally erased as thousands — whether costumed, masked or merely bystanders — converge in the streets in a utopian vision of mass civic participation. And on this day — if only for a day — we also witness New Orleans’ idealized sense of itself come down to earth to shape the city’s social reality.