Carnival time in old Mobile
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In the wake of Super Tuesday, had been contemplating a long angsty post about media coverage of Latino/a and Asian voters and their supposed unwillingness to vote for a black man. (Except it’s only the older ones, and only those of a certain socioeconomic status, and only women, and only… wait, you mean there isn’t some mass brown conspiracy to hate on black people? Wait, you mean there might be something else going on here? Wait, why the heck didn’t you say that in the first damn — oh, never mind.)
But I just got back from a trip back home, and it’s made me more contemplative about the past than the present. Bear with me; this is a bit rambly.
“Home” for me covers several places, but the one that holds the most claim on the title is Mobile, Alabama. It was Mardi Gras time in fair Mobile last week — yes, yes, there are actually many cities besides New Orleans which celebrate it, N.O. was just the one that got famous, Mobile’s is more family-friendly and less infested with stupid college kids, anyway let’s move on. I haven’t done Mardi Gras in Mobile since my late teens, so for me this was a trip down memory lane — even more so since an old college friend of mine was in town too. Right out of the gate we hit up the Mystics of Time parade, which has always had a Chinese theme, complete with fire-breathing dragon floats. I have fond memories of being thrilled and delighted by these as a kid.
This year, I noticed some things I hadn’t before. The elaborate dragon floats, compared to their human-powered counterparts in Chinatown during New Year celebrations, were pretty tired-looking and dull. The oldest of them, Vernadean, had to be dragged by a pickup truck; that pretty much blew my fond nostalgia all to hell. Also, the dragon floats no longer breathe fire, probably because, y’know, FIRE. (Yeah, well, running for my life never hurt me none when I was little…) But other things hadn’t changed. The crowds, cheering for Moonpies. The bands, sashaying and jamming their way down the street. The maskers on the floats, festively attired in bright red Han-dynasty costumes and… yellowface masks.
Yeah. Definitely didn’t notice that part when I was a kid.
I looked over at my friend, who had noticed it too. She grimaced and said, “Yeah, well. You know how this town is. This place doesn’t change.”
See, Mardi Gras was never the anything-goes party that tourists see. In most of the towns that celebrated it, Mardi Gras came only once a year, but Jim Crow was year-round. The original Mardi Gras organizations (called “krewes”) were all white, and some of them were just the shiny happy drunk face of the local KKK. The parades didn’t originally travel through black neighborhoods, and if any black people appeared along the parade route, the maskers wouldn’t throw anything to them. So eventually black krewes started to form, which didn’t have the money to match the flash and glitter of the white ones — but they made up for this with style. Among other things, black marching bands developed a tradition of dance-stepping that was so much fun that even white people would turn out to see it. (And the black people would throw to them. Wasn’t smart not to. The lines of power in Mobile have always been very clear.)
As Mardi Gras became more of a tourist attraction, some of the old traditions got whitewashed a bit. It was a matter of practicality, not enlightenment. Nowadays the parades all follow one of two basic routes, which both go through a demographic mix of neighborhoods. The white parades now throw to black crowds, though there are still some issues (noted below). The black krewes, I’m told, have admitted a few Asians and Latina/os, though of course I couldn’t see past the masks to verify this. Most parades employ a mix of black and white bands — and the white bands have learned to shimmy a bit.
But a lot of things are still the same, especially once you scratch past the surface. The black krewes might have opened things up a little, but the white krewes haven’t. (Rumors were flying this year about a white out-of-towner who’d received a coveted invitation to one of the more popular krewe’s balls — only to be turned away when he brought his black wife.) The krewes still make it clear who their preferred audience is. They often throw stuffed animals to kids along the parade route, but this year there were complaints of black kids getting used, dirty stuffed animals. (This did happen; my friend brought her two-year-old with her, and one of the teddy bears she received on his behalf was gray with dirt and smelled like urine.) At the M.O.T. parade, I stood amid a mostly black crowd near a small knot of white paradegoers. I had to move — it was too dangerous to be near the white people, who got showered with so much stuff that I thought I might get a concussion. And it’s really only the younger generation, black and white, that attends parades regardless of krewe, note. Many older folks on both sides, remembering the unwritten rules of the past, still don’t cross the lines. My mom only goes to the black parades. She just had too many ugly experiences at the white ones, during her formative years, to take a chance on them now.
However, as with Mardi Gras, practicality may soon force further changes on Mobile. What was a majority-white town in my youth now stands poised to become majority-black. There was always a small Jewish population in town, and when I was growing up there were infinitesimal populations of Latinas/os, Asians, Native Americans, and others. But these days the population of Asians is growing — mostly recent immigrants from southeast Asian countries. (My mother proudly informed me there’s now a sushi restaurant in town. Really!) Also, Hurricane Katrina pushed a lot of New Orleanians into Mobile who are pretty much becoming permanent, and while these are mostly black and white too, they bring a more cosmopolitan outlook, and a greater economic diversity than is common in the town. (Like many Southern towns, Mobile is a very binary place — mostly black and white, dirt-poor and affluent, Evangelical and areligious, without a lot of “in between”. The New Orleanians bring the in between.) And new European-owned corporations that are setting up factories and headquarters in town promise to bring in entirely new populations never before seen in the city limits: young, diverse, affluent techies; and affluent foreigners.
I imagine this will trigger all manner of changes in Mobile in the future, and of course these changes will be reflected in Mardi Gras. This year there were complaints about the yellowface masks and the dirty stuffed animals in the letters column of the paper, which I found heartening. Could we one day see integrated krewes, and parade themes which aren’t full of cultural appropriation and gross stereotypes? Maybe, though probably no time soon. Mobile’s got a long way to go in that respect.
(I bring all this up not to suggest that the South is more racist than the North, note. I hear that crap all the time, and it’s bull. I’ve lived in Mobile, New Orleans, Washington DC, Boston, and New York, and I’ve seen overt racism in all those places; the South’s just more open and honest about it.)
But as I listen to today’s media doing its damnedest to imply that racism is a thing of the past, or a lesser thing than sexism, or an esoteric thing existing only between the varied shades of brown, I can’t help but privately marvel. I know they don’t pay much attention to the Mobiles of the nation, but there are a hell of a lot more Mobiles than there are New Yorks. It’s dangerous to ignore them. (As this book explained so well, to digress for a moment.) More dangerous still to reduce these microcosms of America to simple black-and-white equations. No matter how simplistic this stuff might seem on the surface, change is always taking place underneath. The nuances are always there, and it’s stupid to pretend otherwise.
Anyway, I’m off to enjoy the pralines I brought back as souvenirs, and to do some letter-writing to add my voice to the complaints about Mardi Gras racism. Every little bit helps.
(Side-note — if you’re wondering what pralines are, these are still the best I’ve ever had. They’ll make you eat your tongue, as folks say down there.)