The influences of culture and ethnicity in building and continuing to reshape societies and the world itself are impossible to calculate. Communities organize widely recognized public celebrations, which involve plenty of music, dance, and bright colors to preserve their heritage and cherish unique identities. Street festivals in Brazil and many Caribbean countries that attract attention from all around the globe are just a few of these famous examples. New Orleans’ Mardi Gras parade culture, however, goes far beyond the regular festivities by representing long-lasting racial and ethnic struggles. Once a segregated celebration, the festival now hosts participants with a variety of different backgrounds, who often join and march along with the groups and clubs like “Black Indians” and “Zulu”. These subcultures have helped to construct New Orleans’ distinct reputation through their unique past, controversial customs, and an entertaining approach.
Today, the Mardi Gras is one of the biggest city attractions of New Orleans happening yearly. It is a time that grants people the “right to be other” and “escape repressions of their everyday existence” (Lipsitz qtd. in Guthrie, p. 567). More than thirty different tribes and clubs are represented in the parade – all dressed according to their affiliated subgroups (Love). The festival attracts not only tourists but also a nation-wide controversy in people’s perception of the celebrations, which is related to the depictions of indigenous American and African populations by the “Black Indian” and “Zulu” groups. Although the people of New Orleans and many scholars believe in the importance of such an approach, some consider the use of blackface, acts showing violence, culture mimicking, and mocking inappropriate and even racist (McQueeney, p. 159). The way these provocative topics are addressed during Mardi Gras can often be misinterpreted as an insult instead of praise. On the other hand, it only increases the public’s interest in the event expanding its current audience and participant base.
The controversial portrayal of indigenous communities represents a crucial part of New Orleans’ African American history. Being one of the largest cities at the time, it was the “hub to the biggest slave-trading center in the country” (Guthrie, p. 564). As a result, the Mardi Gras culture phenomenon of creating costumes with a tribute to the Indian and African roots has started as an indirect act of resistance to segregation and slavery (Becke, p. 37). Now, the special day is dedicated to celebrating empowerment and showing pride in being a part of the African and Indian communities, which inspires young populations (Love). Social struggles, endured by the contemporary people, have significantly impacted the Mardi Gras festivity and produced stories that are often untold.
The complex and intertwined history of “Mardi Gras Indians” is fascinating. Guthrie, for instance, emphasizes the significance of the triple heritage aspect of the “Black Indians” (Guthrie, p. 559). It originated as long back as the 1700s, when “enslaved Africans merged with desires to be free” through dance, music, and food (Guthrie, p. 562). They were periodically permitted with such an opportunity to perform in the Congo Square area, which was believed to be a sacred place by indigenous Americans at the time (Guthrie, p. 562). However, for some, this was not enough, so they escaped to join several Native American tribes or establish their own, indicating the starting point of separate Afro-Indian identity (Guthrie, p. 563). Despite the liberation of New Orleans by the forces of the Union Army during the Civil War, many local Native American tribes refused the new “freedmen” status and even fought together with the Confederate army, which adds more pain to the “Mardi Gras Indian” heritage (Guthrie, p. 564). The performances of “Black Indians” at the parade are inspired by their painful past but are also a great educational tool filled with joy and pride.
The “Mardi Gras Zulu” groups were formed as a direct response to racial discrimination and segregation. Many oppositional protests arose because the Mardi Gras organizers rejected the idea of portraying the oppressed cultures (Guthrie, p. 563). The Zulu warriors were famous for their bravery in the War against the British and were displayed widely by the contemporary American media, which transformed into a perfect rebellious symbol (McQueeney, p. 143). Unfortunately, the information on the original South African Zulus was limited for contemporary American society, so the performances had to be based on the “white stereotypes” (McQueeney, p. 142). They were often portrayed as blood-thirsty and well-built but lacking intelligence (McQueeney, p. 143). Nevertheless, according to some scholars, it helped African Americans to escape these stereotypes and separate themselves from savage barbarians (McQueeney, p. 142). As time progressed, the “Mardi Gras Zulus” began to build links and connections with the original South African tribes by visiting the country and inviting them to perform alongside in New Orleans (McQueeney, p. 158). The relationship between communities has strengthened despite what many consider shocking and insulting misrepresentation.
There are many phenomena and particular objects that represent the two subcultures. As can be assumed from their name, the “Mardi Gras Indians” clothing style during the festivities depicts the Indian and Afro-Indian culture and history. During the early 1900s, the standardized “Black Indian” costume consisted of “an elaborate headdress (called a “crown”), long pants, shirt, a sleeveless vest, and an apron,” which was hand-decorated with various geometric figures (Becker, p. 37). Out of this list, the most distinguishable attribute of the parade “Indians” is their headdress that is inspired by the indigenous Indian leaders’ war bonnets (Becker, p. 38). On the other hand, the “Zulus” embody a different interesting culture. Their costumes of warriors include “grass skirts and elaborate headgear, carrying spears and shields,” led by King Zulu (McQueeney, p. 140). However, the most distinct cultural object, for which “Zulus” are popular and often criticized, is the use of blackface (McQueeney, p. 140). Although preparations for Mardi Gras cost people large amounts of time and money, they continue to parade, dance, and sing to praise their subcultures, disregarding external criticism.
Mardi Gras is not the only day when these celebrations occur. The “Indians”, for example, have a separate Super Sunday festival, which can be linked to the Sundays of freedom through dancing and music for the enslaved communities in the early 18th century (Guthrie, p. 562). During Super Sunday, many “Mardi Gras Indian” tribes compete with each other for the best costumes in a less violent yet similar way as old tribes “fought each other … which often resulted in deaths” (Guthrie, p. 563). Mardi Gras, Super Sunday and other celebrations led by the local subcultures are one of the fundamentals of New Orleans’ history, which educates the new generation and helps them to write a new one of the future.
Unlike many other bright, energetic, and loud parades around the world, the New Orleans Mardi Gras is one of a kind because of its history full of not only racial and ethnic conflict but also of their later empowerment. Though the origins of this festivity date to many centuries ago, it is still alive and is a popular cultural attraction. Both the “Indians” and “Zulus” have endured segregation, racism, and slavery, and fought back using dance and music. The way these subcultures approach the past is often perceived inappropriate, but it is an accurate depiction of and the result of their difficult heritage. The Mardi Gras, “Mardi Gras Indians”, and “Zulu” have played a key role in creating New Orleans distinct culture and will continue to do so through their colorful costumes and controversial customs.
- Becker, Cynthia. “New Orleans Mardi Gras Indians: Mediating Racial Politics from the Backstreets to Main Street.” African Arts, vol. 46, no. 2, 2013. The MIT Press Journals, doi:10.1162/AFAR_a_00064.
- Guthrie, Ricardo. “Embodying an Imagined Other Through Rebellion, Resistance and Joy: Mardi Gras Indians and Black Indigeneity.” AlterNative: An International Journal of Indigenous Peoples, vol. 12, no. 5, Dec. 2016. SAGE Journals, doi:10.20507/AlterNative.2016.12.5.9.
- Love, Bret. “These are the Mardi Gras Indians of New Orleans.” National Geographic, 2016. Web.
- McQueeney, Kevin. “Zulu: A Transnational History of a New Orleans Mardi Gras Krewe.”
- Safundi: The Journal of South African and American Studies, vol. 19, no. 2, 2018. Taylor & Francis Online, doi:10.1080/17533171.2018.1407083.