OPINION | Unmasking Mardi Gras: Carnival of hate

Zachary Schultz, Staff Writer

Daisy Rymer | Production Manager

The summit of New Orleans’ social calendar is an annual celebration replete with lavish galas, masquerade balls, bead-throwing, intricate costumes, rampant alcohol consumption and the occasional lurid act. These are unretractable components of the season that honor its name – Carnival. Each season, the peculiar enterprise of Carnival — masked riders tossing beads to silhouetted strangers — draws thousands of spectators from outside the state who are eager to get a glimpse into the fanciful world constructed of papier-mache. 

On the surface, it seems that Mardi Gras is clad in the purest egalitarian ideals. The social hierarchies dividing people into separate classes are suspended until the celebration has run its course, allowing people of all walks of life to participate in the festivities together. But appearances are often misleading, and so too with Mardi Gras. Like most artifacts of the Antebellum South, embedded deep within Mardi Gras is a heritage of hate rooted in racial discrimination. 

Charges of racism have plagued New Orleans’ celebration of Mardi Gras since its inception in 1857 when the first parading organization, the Mistick Krewe of Comus, was established. This trend continued to dog the celebration into the present, as parading organizations — old and new — have faced criticism over practices and traditions which some have deemed racist. Even Zulu, a predominantly Black parading organization — whose official name is the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club — has not been spared from such attacks, as critics have labeled the organization’s tradition that members don black face paint while parading, an act that is meant to honor the legacy of the historic Zulu warriors, as blackface

Accusations of racism have not been limited to those krewes who have been a staple of Carnival festivities for centuries. The near-infant Krewe of Nyx, for instance, faced public backlash in 2020 after the krewe’s founder and captain posted what some viewed as a controversial, tone-deaf statement on its social media page amidst the social unrest that broke out over the past summer. In outrage, a considerable portion of its members jumped ship to other parading organizations. 

No parading organization, past or present, is more deserving of the ire of proponents of anti-discrimination in Carnival than the krewe that started it all — the Mistick Krewe of Comus. Cradled during the period of the Antebellum South prior to the Civil War, Comus’ membership represents the highest echelon of white elitism in New Orleans.  

  The woman credited with shining the spotlight on the central role racism and anti-Semitism played in the composition of Carnival’s most elite krewes — Mistick Krewe of Comus, the Knights of Momus, the Krewe of Proteus and the Krewe of Rex — was Dorothy Mae Taylor, who first earned notoriety in 1986 when she became the first Black woman to be elected to the New Orleans’ City Council.  

From her chair on the council, Taylor introduced an ordinance that demanded Mardi Gras clubs desegregate or otherwise face losing parading permits, which the council was in charge of issuing to the krewes each season. A scholar of Carnival and a columnist for The New Orleans Advocate, James Gill remarked that, for her part leading the charge to desegregate Mardi Gras’ parading organizations, Councilwoman Taylor “is remembered among white people here as the vixen who tried to destroy Mardi Gras, and who to some extent succeeded.”

In refusal to submit to the council’s anti-discrimination ordinance, three of the four oldest, most prestigious krewes — the so-called “old-line krewes” of Momus, Comus and, for a time, Proteus — ceased parading, opting instead to honor their krewes’ traditions through continuing to select royal courts and host their annual Mardi Gras balls. 

While Momus and Proteus also postponed parading on Mardi Gras in response to the council’s ordinance, refusing to forfeit their total discretion over whom to admit into the organization, Comus stands apart from them. Even if one’s lineage reflects the well-to-do, Anglo-Saxon background that Comus has cherished and has fought to preserve since its founding, one is still not guaranteed membership. Comus is largely an incestuous group; one must be related to a member or vouched for by a member to be inducted into the secretive organization.

  Following their 1991 decision to postpone parading rather than adhere to the council’s ordinance and desegregate, the chief curators of New Orleans’ rich carnival culture have shielded themselves from public view. As James Gill notes in his quintessential work on Carnival, “Lords of Misrule,” “the old-line krewes adhered to a code of silence.” For Comus, this unwritten code entailed concealing the names of their royal court — as a notable exception, the queen of Comus is announced each season — and thus insulating their organization from public calls for reform. 

In stepping out of the public spotlight, forfeiting its prominent place as the final parade of the Mardi Gras season, Comus has receded into the background. As a result, new, diverse krewes have come to prominence and have reshaped the season into a time of non-seriousness and inclusive fun before the commencement of Lent — a solemn time of reflection and sacrifice in the Christian calendar to which Mardi Gras acts as a prelude. It is clear that Comus’ 30-year absence from the parades on Fat Tuesday has not brought the celebration to a halt. 

Perhaps those repulsed by Comus’ continued discrimination in membership could find solace in the oft-quoted aphorism, “out of sight, out of mind.” However, the notion that since suspending its parade operations Comus is out of sight is not altogether true. 

The official end of Mardi Gras hinges on the meeting of the courts of Rex and Comus, during which the king of the former krewe travels to the ball held in the honor of the king of the latter non-parading organization. In order to expunge the stain of discrimination and classism in Mardi Gras which Comus personifies, this tradition should be done away with. 

Rex, that is, should be honored for doing what Comus refused to: desegregate and welcome diverse members into its ranks. After all, it is now Rex, as the king of the krewe is called, who is the final Carnival monarch to be toasted by the mayor of New Orleans each Mardi Gras from the steps of Gallier Hall — a historic, Greek-inspired building that once served as New Orleans City Hall — and who alone is referred to as “king of Carnival.”  Retiring the meeting of Rex and Comus will help sever Comus’ remaining privileges and, in so doing, put an end to the visible remnants of Carnival’s hate-filled past.

  Mardi Gras is a tradition almost as old as the state in which it was cradled. In the near two centuries that New Orleanians have indulged in carnivalized extravagance, the annual celebration continues to serve as a reminder that the future of an institution need not conform to its past. In reducing all classes to the same level during the season, albeit for a brief time, Carnival has engendered the gradual erosion of social hierarchies in New Orleans, or at least their physical representations. 

Similar to the humbling, fraternal attitude that Hurricane Katrina induced in the local population due to having common experiences amidst the chaos that ensued, Mardi Gras reminds locals that, whether one was raised in the Ninth Ward or in the Garden District, all have a common claim to the cultural heritage of New Orleans and share in an obligation to protect it with vigor and resolve.

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