Why ever would they hold Mardi Gras?
Many people have ridiculed New Orleans’ observance of Mardi Gras this year, saying that we are callous to celebrate a frivolous holiday while so many still suffer. Even many who were exiled to other cities by the floodwaters of Katrina decried the annual fete. What many fail to realize is the importance of Carnival in New Orleans.
In the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Op/ed section, an anonymous gentleman wrote: “Unfortunately, I think New Orleans’ fathers are in denial. Rather than pump large sums into a tourist party (which I for one would not go to this year if you paid me because of the shape the city is in), they should be working on raising the city so that another Category 4 or, heaven forbid, a Category 5 hurricane does not do the same damage next year. I gave at the office and am still giving to help folks get on their feet, but I have no desire to throw money out the window just to make it comfortable for folks to get drunk and display body parts.”
Several ubiquitous elements are at work in this harangue, and the central element is one that shows just how great the gulf is between New Orleans and the rest of the nation, as outsiders still do not get what Carnival is about. This is evidenced when other cities attempt to have Mardi Gras, as it often unravels into civil unrest. Also, the city is rarely understood by the casual outsider, depicted a den of sin, loose morals, and good food; it is a hodgepoge of hedonsim. Nonetheless, the city has survived for centuries as a cultural island, where things go on that one would never find anywhere else; it has a European aura in the Deep South. New Orleans relishes in this sentiment, as it prides itself on its unique, funky, and aloof charm. Perhaps, that is the problem, New Orleans just isn't American enough? Not enough to be a rallying point for the nation.
What the gentlemen’s letter misses is that the nation has forgotten us. No longer front page news, we are dying on the vine. Even the president, the one who stood in Jackson Square and promised to do whatever it takes to rebuild, refuses to guarantee Category 5 hurricane protection. That is scary, especially 6 months after Katrina and with hurricane season just around the corner.
Ultimately, New Orleans is on its own, so Tuesday morning it did what does best: forget its worries and throw a party. Throwing parties is also good business. Not only did area businesses that were hanging on by a thread need Mardi Gras as a shot in the arm, it was a catharsis for the citizens. A palpable sense of survival, defiance could be felt all throughout the day. A city screaming together, “We are alive.” It was a renewed pulse for a city that had long been declared dead.
For 150 years, the Crescent City has held Mardi Gras. Since its inception, it has been the season of the Id, whereby satire, mirth, and music is used to celebrate the last gasp of fun before the clock strikes midnight, thus beginning solemnity of Lent. While television would have the average outsider believe that “Girls Gone Wild,” where women expose themselves salaciously, is the height of Fat Tuesday, there are important cultural traditions that come each and every year on Mardi Gras.
Also in the gentlemen’s letter is that New Orleans is at the mercy of the rest of America for alms to rebuild, thus requiring New Orleanians to check their behavior in order to receive charity. Like an alcoholic or dope fiend, we must kick our nasty habits before receiving any counseling, and we must suddenly forget our wicked ways and straighten up if we are to deserve the benevolence of our brothers and sisters. That goes especially for throwing a frivolous party.
This attitude was conspicuously absent in New York after 9/11, as people adorned their bumpers and windows with stickers imploring Americans to not forget that awful day in September. Most people, lunatic preachers aside, did judge not New Yorkers. New Yorkers were not told to cancel their annual Thanksgiving parade. Instead, they were encouraged by the nation, as it was seen as a symbol of defiance. However, New Orleans was hit by a natural disaster; a faceless enemy, not some bearded man wielding an AK-47 in grainy, obscure videos conjuring unified hatred.
A milieu of laissez le bon temps roule (let the good times roll) has pervaded the city’s eclectic charm for as long as the annual celebration. This, however, has been condemned by outsiders, portraying us as slothful, drunken louts. While that criticism might not be completely off the mark, New Orleanians must laugh at themselves, and Mardi Gras is important time of year for us to do that, this year we needed self-deprecation more than ever.
Those that suggested New Orleans not hold Mardi Gras were met with scathing rebukes from locals. Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson wrote: “I found this show-must-go-on consensus jarring, but I should have thought back to my time as a correspondent for The Washington Post covering South America, specifically Brazil, and remembered just how important the tradition of pre-Lenten carnival can be to a society. Carnival in Brazil is more than an officially sanctioned bacchanal, it's more like a national birthright - a guaranteed, weeklong interlude during which lots of inhibiting rules are suspended, most societal barriers are ignored and all manner of oppressive problems are deferred.”
Robinson’s comparison of Brazil and New Orleans does hold water. Mardi Gras is essential to New Orleans’ identity; it a central part of what the city is. Ask many locals, and they too, would say it is a birthright of the city, and the lessening of social norms and barriers as the streets come alive with music and utter insanity is part of that birthright. Perhaps Robinson’s most stinging criticism is that all of the frivolity does little to solve the problems that plagued New Orleans.
But Mardi Gras is not about solving problems, it is about brass bands in the streets, parades, Mardi Gras Indians, and Skull Krewes. It is a chance to mock our politicians. For one day, that fleeting moment, the tables are turned, as satire becomes king. This year there was no lack of targets. Former FEMA head Michael Brown, Ray “Chocolate City” Nagin, the beleaguered Kathleen Blanco, and, as always, the President were targets of merriment. However, with what many have gone through, New Orleanians needed the day to laugh at the state of things, lest we cry. It was a chance to forget for one day.
Today, as the city’s coffers are little fuller, many of us awoke—this writer included—with an awful hangover and the same problems that plagued us before the storm. But we are still here to live with the problems rather than washed away in Katrina’s wake, and this year we celebrated that we are alive.
Special thanks to the All-Indian Krewe of Pushpa, Veena, Rajiv, and Rajesh for helping with pictures and providing a great time for Mardi Gras. Remember to click on the photos to see enhanced shots.