When I was a kid, my favorite Mardi Gras parade was Endymion. I loved Endymion for reasons most New Orleans kids can relate to—they threw the most plastic crap. They were also one of the first parades to embellish plain strands of beads with a krewe-branded medallion. It read “Token of Youth,” a fine sentiment for Carnival’s invitation to the inner child in all of us.
How times have changed. I wish I could report that I was boycotting Endymion this year because they’ve invited a Fox News ideologue, Raymond Arroyo, to ride with them. But that would be dishonest. The truth is that Endymion lost its luster for me years ago. The last time I went to that parade was perhaps ten years ago; and my interest was more in the Mid-City block party surrounding it than in the parade itself. Endymion is the most Vegas of all the Carnival parades – gaudy, glitzy, big – but not particularly imaginative or attractive.
In fact, this may be the first year, not counting last year, of course, that I attend no “major parades” at all. By “major parade,” I mean the ones with big floats pulled by tractors on major city thoroughfares – 99% of which roll on the heavily abused St. Charles Avenue route. One reason is that my own neighborhood, Faubourg Marigny, has re-invigorated Carnival in a way that reflects my own aesthetics and values on such a scale that I can enjoy the entire season, with several public events, without ever getting in my car.
A couple of very interesting analyses of changing Carnival practice have appeared in The Lens over the past two years, one by Lolis Eric Elie in 2021, and another by Jules Bentley in 2020. Both emphasized the notion of Carnival for New Orleanians, and ways that locals could re-claim ownership of New Orleans’ unique, quasi-national holiday. Bentley’s essay is more direct about the “elephant in the room” looming large in Carnival. It’s the same elephant that has tainted every discussion of New Orleans-area culture and politics in our time. It’s the same elephant reflected in Endymion’s choice to put a Fox News hatemonger on top of one of their super-sized floats. It’s the Republican elephant.
Bentley points out, for example, that Jefferson Parish congressman Steve Scalise rides in Bacchus. One of their floats waved a Trump flag in 2020. I hope New Orleanians don’t need reminding that Scalise is the Republican who began his career by appealing to the many David Duke supporters in his suburban district. We can’t forget that most recently, his significant official act was to join other members of his party in an attempt to overturn a free and fair presidential election—a first in the history of the United States.
I’m sure some readers will bristle and trot out the usual canard about “politicizing” Carnival. Carnival has been political for centuries in New Orleans and throughout the millennia of its history before New Orleans was founded. Even the most casual student of New Orleans Mardi Gras knows about the white supremacist rhetoric and actions of 19th Century old-line, Uptown krewes – Comus, Momus, Proteus, and, later, Rex. Times-Picayune columnist James Gill wrote the book on that topic, and re-visited some key points in his recent column on Endymion’s choice to honor a right-wing propagandist.
Gill’s book also includes lots of attention to a major turning-point in our Carnival history, Council Member Dorothy Mae Taylor’s brave and visionary ordinance barring racist parading clubs from city streets. The ordinance was later struck down in court, but not before three of New Orleans’ most historically racist krewes—Comus, Momus, and Proteus—elected to scrap their parades rather than admit a single Black member.
Twenty of the most eventful years in New Orleans’ Carnival history followed the passage of that ordinance. The overall result has been, in my view, a Carnival Golden Age of mass public participation and a revival of Carnivalesque spirit that the elite Uptown American clubs had sought to obliterate with their re-invention of Carnival in the mid-19th Century.
But the Carnival landscape of today is arguably more divided than ever before. And the reason is, once again, the elephant in the room. While the old-line, white supremacist krewes were demoralized back in the 1990s, they’ve re-occupied the streets of the Uptown route since then, even though the city itself has become more progressive than ever. Proteus returned in 2000. Even though they have eschewed political commentary, I still don’t accept any throws from their riders. But Proteus has retained what was valuable about the old-line parades—beautiful float designs based on evocative mythical themes.
Krewe d’Etat began rolling in 1998 with an admirably imaginative iconography and a commitment to satirical political themes. In a way, they’re emulating downtown’s Krewe du Vieux, albeit with key differences: Krewe d’Etat has much deeper pockets, bigger professionally constructed floats, and—most importantly – less “equal opportunity” satire. Krewe du Vieux, with their more Carnivalesque, D.I.Y. floats, lampoons political figures on the left and the right. Krewe d’Etat’s satire, like their ancestors’ Reconstruction-era Comus satire, skews sharply to the right, with a big bullseye on New Orleans’ Black leaders. Admittedly, for many years, my left-leaning politics did not prevent me from enjoying Krewe d’Etat’s conservative brand of political satire. However, as I’ve seen American conservatism lurch from libertarian to fascist over the past decade, their humor is not funny to me anymore. It’s just infuriating and frightening.
For those tourists and suburbanites who want to come into New Orleans days before Mardi Gras, there’s the Knights of Chaos parade, a thinly veiled re-incarnation of the historically white supremacist Knights of Momus. They offer the same brand of conservative and, arguably, racist political satire. What’s most upsetting about this bald resurgence of neo-Confederate political speech is that it’s taking place in a city that delivers less than 15% of its vote to national Republican candidates and hasn’t elected a single Republican to city government. We need to recognize parades like Chaos and Krewe d’Etat for what they are: mostly guys from out of town hurling insults at us and using our tax dollars to clean up the mess they make doing so.
Before COVID, I would make my way uptown to catch Muses and Orpheus. I’m not so sure this year. It was reported that Orpheus, one of the glorious developments of the 1990s commitment to make Uptown Mardi Gras less racist, allowed one of the most fascist voices in American media, Fox News’ Laura Ingraham, to ride in its 2019 parade. I watched that parade and didn’t notice her. She was masked. The krewe didn’t announce or in any way exalt her presence. So, I’m not holding it against them, yet.
My reason for re-considering Muses this year has nothing to do with that organization. The problem is what comes before it. For years, I was able to enjoy Muses on Magazine Street between Jefferson and Napoleon Avenues, without having to wait through the two parades before it. The city’s consolidation of parade routes this year is understandable given logistical challenges. But I can’t stomach being subjected to the politically repugnant Knights of Chaos for an hour or longer before Muses rolls. In its early years, Muses delivered a punch of satire from the left that seemed to balance out the blows Krewe d’Etat landed from the right. But Muses has gone for a much less overtly political brand of satire in recent years. That’s fine, except in how it models the asymmetrical political warfare the United States has witnessed, lately. Conservatives go for state-sponsored censorship, from the 1830s bans on speech critical of slavery to the 2021 bans on “critical race theory.” Conservatives wake up every day with a single-minded focus on “owning the libs.” And liberals are, understandably, sick and tired of participating in the culture of contempt that the right, from the Tea Party through Trump, keeps forcing on us.
But there’s also a non-political answer to why Uptown parades have become so not worth it: there are just too many of them. For decades, there was one parade per night, and one or two on weekend days. I have nothing against the Knights of Babylon on Thursday night before Muses. They’ve been around since 1939 and did not leave the streets for racist reasons and then sneak back under a different name, as Chaos and d’Etat did. But it’s tough to stand on the sidewalk for two whole parades before my favorite parade, Muses, even starts. It’s tough on me and it’s tough on school kids, like my own, who traditionally parade in Muses. It’s also tough to stay up so late, especially when one of the causes is a parading club that spits in the face of the 85% of New Orleanians whose votes are indicative of liberal, feminist, and anti-racist politics.
I’m not calling for a ban on parades like Chaos, Krewe d’Etat, Endymion, or Bacchus just because they may reflect a political stance counter to what the vast majority of New Orleanians believe. I’m just predicting that fewer and fewer actual New Orleanians—defined in the legal sense of people who reside in Orleans Parish—will want to attend these parades in the future. They will increasingly become parades by and for tourists and suburban visitors.
Actual New Orleanians are doing what living cultures always do: re-inventing their cultural traditions in fresh and creative ways. My own neighborhood is doing just that. Krewe du Vieux has been joined, since Katrina, by Krewe Delusion, Chewbacchus, ‘Tit Rex, Krewe Bohème, and the Krewe of Red Beans. On Mardi Gras day, the informal Societé de Sainte Anne’s procession wends its way from Bywater to the Quarter as it has for over half a century now. These parades are remarkable re-inventions and models of semi-formalized street celebration highlighting more individual craftsmanship and less plastic crap.
New Carnival organizations—established by actual New Orleans residents—are putting their own native stamp on Carnival in ways that are different from how my neighborhood does it. The Krewe of Femme Fatale is open to women of “all creeds and colors,” but foregrounds iconography specific to African American womanhood. The same can be said for the Krewe of Nefertiti, which is also helping to re-invigorate distinct neighborhood celebrations beyond Uptown and the old Creole Districts by rolling for the second time in New Orleans East. Krewes with New Orleans-based memberships are as left-leaning as one might expect given the voting data. Members of the Krewe of Nyx appropriately expressed outrage at an authoritarian captain’s inability to understand Black Lives Matter grievances during the summer of 2020. As a result, most of the club members left and formed new krewes. The Krewe of Red Beans was active in its support of out-of-work restaurant workers and musicians during the early days of the COVID crisis.
One of the biggest rifts between New Orleans and many conservative suburbanites has been our city’s exemplary handling of the COVID-19 crisis. New Orleans was a national leader in mask and vaccine mandates in a state that usually comes in last place for competent governance and public health practices. Sadly, many of our conservative suburban neighbors lobbed roadblocks and vitriol at our ultimately successful efforts. This particular flashpoint is also the saddest expression of the growing divide between New Orleans residents and the non-residents who come here to party even though they hate us. The Krewe du Vieux selected for their monarch one of the most beloved people in New Orleans these days, Dr. Jennifer Avegno, the competent and compassionate director of the city’s Department of Health. But she didn’t ride because of death threats. It takes no genius to figure out that the threats emanated from the rabidly conservative Trumpworld that dominates too many of our suburban parishes. Actual New Orleans residents might not like Endymion’s Fox News grand marshal this year, but we haven’t threatened to hurt the guy.
C.W. Cannon is the author of four novels. His next book, “I Want Magic: Essays on New Orleans, the South, and Race”, will be published in the spring of this year.