For many families in New Orleans, Mardi Gras is about much more than having a good time or even using the holiday and its industry as leverage for changing laws and customs. For many of us Mardi Gras reminds us of generations of struggle and gratitude and the on-going need for such work today.
In SAC, when we think about education and literacy in New Orleans, we encourage students, teachers, and schools to see our family histories as strengths, as tools and materials for building quality education. Some of this innovative work happened in New Orleans in extensive and important ways at neighborhood schools such as Joseph Craig, Oretha Castle Haley, and Martin Luther King, Jr. and in programs and curricula developed by the New Orleans Public Schools’ department of Africana and multi-cultural studies. Some of these programs are returning as their schools become part of new school systems and are nurtured by generations-old organizations such as Tamborine and Fan and the Guardians Institute. Others are in danger of dying.
On this Mardi Gras day, many families will continue to teach their children and share traditions in intentional and sometimes serendipitous ways, as Demetria White, a 2007 graduate of McMain Secondary School and SAC staff member, describes in today’s student essay.
The Beat Goes On
Flipping through the pages of an old family scrapbook, I see pages filled with past Mardi Gras snapshots. There are old, discolored pictures of Mardi Gras Indians and a section filled with people dressed as clowns. I didn’t know any of these faces and began to wonder why they were in my family’s scrapbook.
Flipping back to the section with the unknown clowns, I asked, “Daddy, who are these people?”
He let out a few chuckles and replied, “This is your family.”
“Okay. . . ,” I said, giving him that tell-me-more look.
“Meat, this was a long time ago, before you were even thought of. One Mardi Gras, me and your momma made those clown suits for all the kids in the family.”
He lifted the plastic cover and removed a few pictures from the pages.
“You see. There is Dexter, Vincent, Nelly, Angel, and Lika. Look, there is Nettie and your momma and Vanessa. That was one of the best Mardi Gras’s ever. Boy, did it take some time to make those suits, but we did it for those children. They loved it. Little L and D clowns walking the streets of New Orleans. . . .”
As my daddy began reminiscing on that Mardi Gras, I began to flip the pages. As I flipped through, my dad abruptly placed his hand on a picture of a man wearing an orange Indian suit. His mouth was wide open like a roaring lion. Both hands were raised, and one foot was lifted. It was sort of scary looking. A sudden outburst came from the left.
“Fi ya ya, who got that fiya. . . Aaaaaaaaa! Wild boy coming through. Make way. Make way.”
My dad began saying these chants and moving his arms like he was at a tribal ceremony.
“Who is this?” I asked.
“Girl, that’s me. You can’t tell? I’m wild boy, 7th ward wild boy!”
As he danced and chanted, I laughed hysterically. He really looked like a true Navajo Indian, like he should be dancing around a campfire worshipping Mother Earth. My daddy went on to tell me how he masked for the Downtown Indians with Tootie Montana. He said the most exciting part was roaming the streets of the 7th ward tapping his tambourine and chanting.
As I watched my dad put on his show, I received a small history lesson. I learned that black folks began to mask Indian as a way of honoring folks who were native to the Louisiana and New Orleans area, and in the 18th century assisted enslaved Africans who had escaped and were working as the original freedom fighters, conducting slave revolts and establishing independent black communities and preserving African cultural traditions, all with some assistance from Native Americans.
As my daddy traveled down memory lane, this scrapbook came alive. He brought the pictures to life by telling the stories and reliving every moment.
Looking through the scrapbook with my daddy was very important to me. Even though my pedigree doesn’t trace back to maroon colony leader Juan Malo or the NAACP’s attorney A. P. Tureaud, I realized the importance of Mardi Gras to our family—and the importance of us honoring our ancestors who fought for freedom and those who helped them. It was a beat that could be found in every family member. The excitement, the culture, the atmosphere, everything about Mardi Gras throbs in our souls. The beat is so strong. If you walk past that scrapbook today, you might be able to hear it. “Fi ya ya!”
The opinions expressed in Student Stories: A New Orleans Classroom Chronicle are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.