Mardi Gras and Post-Katrina Politics
By Kristen Barber
Doctoral Candidate, University of Southern California
It is carnival time in New Orleans once again. Having lived in New Orleans and evacuated for Hurricane Katrina, I have a particular fondness for Mardi Gras. However, while it is certainly a time of celebration and mischief, it now also holds important political meaning.
Before Katrina I didn’t think much about the crazy costumes, lavish floats and amazing performances; they were just fun and often ironic. I especially enjoyed the Krewe of Muses who tossed high-heels and Barbie-dolls from their floats; they always had the best “throws.” However, post-Katrina, carnival is political for me and for many other New Orleanians who continue to reside in a city whose problems have since fallen off the national radar. It is a time to resist invisibility, and to make public our experiences with disaster and our unhappiness with the continuing lack of aid.
Before I moved to Los Angeles to finish my graduate studies, I took part in the Mardi Gras following Katrina. It was nearly six months after the storm, and feelings of both determination and trepidation resonated from those residents who had returned ready to rebuild their lives and their city. It was difficult to remain positive and to clean up and rebuild while surrounded by reminders of the storm: flooded homes, empty storefronts, and the presence of military police., With its tradition of social and political satire, Mardi Gras empowered people by allowing them to publicly voice their sense of injustice and to share their experiences of trauma and disaster with others.
I was part of the St. Anne parade, which begins near Big Dandy’s, a gay bar in the Faubourg Marigny, and tapers off at Bourbon Street. As I sashayed down the street, my boyfriend and I noticed the number of people dressed as blue-tarp roofs and FEMA trailers; they were everywhere. People were dressed as levees, immobilized buses, rescue “X’s”, Home Depot workers, maggots and maggot-infested refrigerators; some wrapped duct-tape around themselves to symbolize waterlines, which still mark many of the city’s flooded homes. Katrina had broken the levees six months prior to this Mardi Gras, but New Orleanians had refused to let their experiences fade into the past; after all, they were still living with the after effects of the storm.
Decadent, controversial, and politically incorrect, the carnival is an ideal event through which people may engage their memories of disaster in visible and politically charged ways. Many costumes voiced people’s outrage with social injustice by drawing attention to the government neglect that contributed to the weak levee system and later to the poor living conditions at many storm shelters.
For example, some costumes mocked then-president George Bush, who was blamed for mobilizing governmental aid too late. Paraders also wore t-shirts that poked fun at Mayor Ray Nagin, who swore New Orleans would be a “chocolate city” once again. Some people were dressed as blind levee inspectors, and I saw one woman in a Marie Antoinette costume proclaiming, “Let them eat MRE’s”—the “meals-ready-to-eat ” that the military distributed to residents post-Katrina. While tourists were in town for a good time, “boobs and beads” as it’s often called, many locals would not let the tourists’ experiences of the Big Easy pass without remembering Katrina.
I wouldn’t be surprised if Hurricane Katrina has changed the face of Mardi Gras forever. This is because the carnival is shaped by historical events such as colonization and slavery. I think of the Zulu King, a highly honored carnival position, and of the flambeaux carrier, a position held mainly by African-American men who light the parade route with torches and scramble for nickels and dimes tossed (and sometimes pelted) at them by the crowd. Further, Mardi Gras has a long history with politics, and has often allowed disenfranchised groups to resist subordination. The Mardi Gras Indians, a group of Black New Orleanians who dress up for carnival in elaborate, colorful costumes made from beads and feathers, emerged in the early 19th century as a way to resist racial objectification.
In his book Cities of the Dead, Joseph Roach notes that through their costumes and performances, the Mardi Gras Indians engage with their ancestors’ lives of slavery, their own experiences with racism, and draw parallels between the experiences of African-Americans and American Indians. The Mardi Gras Indians parade in order to “take back” their lives, land, and memories.
Carnival costumes bring life back into the bare traces of Katrina, allowing people to confront their ghosts and maintain a sense of agency in a situation in which they have little power. Katrina-related costumes make suffering and injustice visible, and allow people to take up a political dialogue, claim a sense of autonomy, and demonstrate their resilience.
I recently visited New Orleans and saw that the city was still haunted by FEMA trailers and flooded homes. Although I will not be at Mardi Gras this year, I wonder how the people will continue to bring Katrina into their celebration—through costumes and floats, party themes and party talk. After all, those who have returned to the city continue to live with the physical reminders of the storm. I also wonder how those who left the city, and who found themselves in new and unlikely places, might honor and express their experiences with the storm. Celebrations like Mardi Gras might seem only occasions of decadence, but they usually have rich histories and serve a political purpose.