This year, Mardi Gras is canceled, as were many events around the world in the past 12 months. In lieu of parades, locals have turned their houses into carnival floats, to save the spirit of an event which normally attracts visitors from all corners of the globe.
But what exactly is this famous New Orleans festival honoring? With its rituals of masquerading, parading and cross-dressing, the origins of this holiday lie in a long battle between White supremacy and the local community’s performative activism.
Mardi Gras is an imported Catholic custom, a religious tradition celebrating the last day of an indulgent Carnival season, preceding 40 days of penitential Lent. In colonial New Orleans, it was marked by private masked balls, and that custom persisted through French and Spanish rule and into the American period.
Before the Civil War, Mardi Gras exposed a contradiction and a divide. Anglo-Americans, mostly Protestant, wanted to prohibit this foreign festival because it encouraged social mixing in a city that had one of the highest shares of free people of color in the United States, and in a state that witnessed the greatest uprising of enslaved people in American history. In fact, street masking remained illegal until 1825. French-speaking Creoles, who were both Black and White and overwhelmingly Catholic, nonetheless continued traditions of hosting balls and leading boisterous street celebrations, often riotous and chaotic.
Yet the animosity between the White sections of the two groups was eventually reconciled in their shared commitment to racial exclusion and patriarchy, which they used to transform Mardi Gras rituals. The first modern parade organization, the Mistick Krewe of Comus, was established in 1856, and it functioned as a secret society: Its membership was by invitation only, its members were all White and male, representing the wealthy trading and banking sections of New Orleans’s society. Rather than being divided by language and religion, the secret society unified around the idea of White supremacy. Each year, they funded extravagant floats for the parade to show off their wealth and social status.
After the Civil War, this reinvented Mardi Gras tradition became a public forum for challenging Reconstruction efforts. The members of the early krewes resented the changes, postwar opportunities and leadership roles afforded to African Americans in the South. Many krewe members were also openly part of the White Man’s League. For example, Comus themed its 1873 parade: “The Missing Links to Darwin’s Origin of Species.” The floats presented animalistic and grotesque portrayals of reforming politicians, using racist scientific language to underpin the perceived degeneracy of American society. Sparing no expense in creating elaborate costumes, the masqueraders also denigrated Black Southerners, portrayed as apes in minstrel clothing. Four years later, their 1877 parade was themed “The Aryan Race.” In those parades, White krewes asserted their power by crowning their leaders Carnival Kings, constructing an alternative political order for the South.
Mardi Gras was thus used to reflect, entrench and distort political and social divisions and deployed costumes and abrasive satire to amplify them further.
Yet, these parades also became a tool for those marginalized to reclaim agency and control of the public space. After all, in a festival that centered on cross-dressing and performance, the transformation of one’s identity could very well be the real melting-pot that America promised. While White krewes ruled in the central streets of New Orleans, Black working-class groups dominated the back ones, where they marched, without floats, in elaborate feather and bead costumes. Developing as an alternative “Mardi Gras Indians” tradition, these parades epitomized ideological kinship between New Orleans’s Black population and local indigenous groups, and their shared resistance to White supremacist rule.