Posted by: emilysuzanneclark | February 12, 2013

Laissez les bons temps rouler

Mardi Gras Day. Like most things in the US, Carnival in Louisiana has a darker past than its lively, fun atmosphere today gives away. During the mid- to late-nineteenth century, krewes like Comus, Rex, and Proteus formed and established themselves as high-class social clubs for the local plutocracy (though Carnival in New Orleans goes back further in time). In Lords of Misrule: Mardi Gras and the Politics of Race in New Orleans (1997), James Gill explores the historical origins behind the statement, “Mardi Gras may be best known to the outside world as a public festival, but upper-class New Orleans knew that its real significance lay in the annual reaffirmation of social eminence over merit.” Racism, classism, and blood are stamped on Carnival’s past. Though an English visitor to the city in 1846 took offense to Carnival for its racial blending, “official” Mardi Gras would emerge from the Civil War as a largely white affair. (“The strangeness of the scene,” the visitor wrote, “was not a little heightened by the blending of the negroes, quadroons, and mulattoes in the crow, and we were amused by observing the ludicrous surprise, mixed with contempt, of several unmasked, stiff, grave Anglo-Americans from the north who were witnessing for the first time what seemed to them so much mummery and tomfoolery.”). Talking about the history of black Mardi Gras in New Orleans will have to be another post at another time.

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The Mistick Krewe of Comus may have sat Mardi Gras out during the Civil War and Union occupation of the city, but they came back strong during the era historians have called The Lost Cause. Following the war, the main krewes (Rex, Comus, and the new Twelfth Night Revelers) sought to celebrate Anglo-Saxon supremacy. Confederate soldiers, the Confederate cause, the Old South itself were all glorified in the Lost Cause movement. The Ku Klux Klan, the White League, and the White Knights were all various violent manifestations of the ideology. A dual government of local white “Redeemers” led by John McEnery rivaled the President Grant recognized Republican state government. The same pool of local white men who served in McEnery’s government, were often members of the White League and members of one of the city’s krewes. The social apparatus of white supremacy and upper-class power included all of these. In Lords of Misrule, Gill even identified the short rule of the White League following September 1874’s Battle of Liberty Place as “the Mistick Krewe’s reign over Louisiana.”

Rex 1903 Fétes and Feasts Procession Flyer

Rex 1903 Fétes and Feasts Procession Flyer

For more great Carnival ephemera, see the Louisiana State Museum’s Carnival Collection.

1873’s Mistick Krewe of Comus chose “The Missing Links to Darwin’s Origin of Species” as its theme. Designs for parade costumes are available via Tulane’s online archives. Many of the costumes are generic – a greyhound, a flying fish, a camel.

Mistick Krewe of Comus, 1873, Flying Fish costume design

Mistick Krewe of Comus, 1873, Flying Fish costume design

Mistick Krewe of Comus, 1873, Greyhound costume design

Mistick Krewe of Comus, 1873, Greyhound costume design

But some animal designs were meant to be specific figures as well. The “Ass” was depicted as Charles Darwin, both in the design image and in the parade. The Rattlesnake was Republican Governor Henry Warmoth. The Hyena was General Benjamin Butler – the notorious (among Confederate supporters) Union general who first occupied the city during the Civil War. The Tobacco Grub was President Grant. The only animals that were identified as contemporary figures were those with political and social views that opposed the Mistick Krewe social apparatus. In short, they were the butt of the parade’s joke.

The Tobacco Grub depicted as President Ulysses S. Grant

The Tobacco Grub depicted as President Ulysses S. Grant

The Hyena, depicted as General Benjamin Butler

The Hyena, depicted as General Benjamin Butler

The Rattlesnake, depicted as Governor Henry Warmoth

The Rattlesnake, depicted as Governor Henry Warmoth

New Orleans is not alone for its raced Mardi Gras history. Watch Margaret Brown’s fantastic documentary The Order of Myths for a look at Carnival and race in Mobile (the final interview scene with her grandfather still gives me chills). Mardi Gras possesses a history that includes institutional and physical racial violence. Does that mean that no one should have fun today? Or that the parade season in New Orleans is wrong? Of course not. It means that, like most things in the US, Mardi Gras has a complicated and dark past. History is important. But, regardless, enjoy the day with a king cake and a drink or two! Or three … or four …

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