In Carnival’s Time of Dying

Feb 16, 2012 by

When I first came down here for a visit, it was the final spring break of my college years, and it overlapped with the beginnings of Carnival parade season. I had no clue of the changes that had been wrought on Carnival as New Orleans had known it – I just knew that I was having a grand time catching any variety of things from the passing Knights of Sparta, even some inebriated rider’s giant mixed drink in a koozie. All that the rest of the country knows about Mardi Gras here is that it’s a good time on wheels – what they don’t know is how much the history – and the future – of this place is tied up in all the celebration.

The introduction of Carnival’s anti-discrimination ordinance in 1991 certainly freaked out a lot of people who were well aware of what could happen if it was fully implemented, or even partially implemented. It was put forth as an eternal tale of tug-of-war between tradition and change writ large on a bejeweled, beaded, and glittered stage that, if one looked closely, was becoming a little worse for wear with each passing year…even if it wasn’t initially intended that way:

Mr. GILL: I think you cannot deny that (Dorothy Mae Taylor) is remembered among white people here as the vixen who tried to destroy Mardi Gras, and who to some extent succeeded.

(KAREN) BATES: He covered Taylor’s city council hearings in 1991 until a weakened version of the anti-discrimination ordinance was passed in ’92. Gill says that many of the old-line krewes believed Taylor ruined what had been a wonderful party that they had sponsored and financed as their gift to the city.

Mr. GILL: No one is trying to defend segregation, but I think you cannot undermine an American’s right to choose his own friends. It’s not quite as simple a matter of principle as it might at first seem.

BATES: But many black citizens saw it differently. Jay Banks was a senior aide to Dorothy May Taylor. He says integrating the old-line krewes for Mardi Gras was never the main focus of his boss’s efforts.

Mr. JAY BANKS (Senior aide to Dorothy Mae Taylor): Many business deals are being cut in those private clubs that everybody didn’t have access to; business deals that related to tax dollars. Those businessmen were benefiting, but if you or I were in the same business, we didn’t have the opportunity to sit at their table and have that discussion. That is how the whole thing started.

BATES: Banks says the opponents of Taylor’s ordinance framed it as a challenge to the beloved tradition of Mardi Gras instead of a challenge to segregation.

Mr. BANKS: It got twisted into a Mardi Gras ordinance because the folks that were opposing it, that’s not sexy. Mardi Gras never was sexy.

Reading James Gill’s recent column on the impact of Dorothy Mae Taylor’s ordinance 20 years later reveals that the meat of big-time Carnival is still in the money – but not in the money that was passed around through deals in the Boston or Pickwick Clubs. Anyone who can pay, no matter where they’re from, what they do, or what they look like, gets to be harnessed into a float. Problem is, in a city that has fewer economic opportunities than ever outside of tourism, selling those spots is now a big industry in itself . What it does emphasize, for locals, is the aspect of Carnival that has always endured despite – finding one’s own fun among friends and family, whether it is in a raggedy-ass hipster dance troupe, in sitting by the parade route waiting for the spectacles to pass by, or in simply being open to any and all surprises. In hard times, we all need a release like that.

There are some questions that occur to me, especially when I go back and reread one of my favorite books on Carnival: What if Taylor had been able to counter the spin and rework things to pry open the doors of the private clubs without having to go through Carnival organizations? Would that even have been possible in a city that was already in decline well before 1991? Have we really solved the problems of discrimination, or simply allowed them to transmogrify? Each question is a mask – and, to paraphrase Mark Twain, in this age when the religious element of New Orleans Carnival has been pretty much knocked out of the revelry, what remains are universal ideas of transformation and change that simultaneously invite us to peek behind the masks while dancing away from us as we attempt to do so. The whole process of trying to chart this city’s future is a dance with these queries of import: a few steps forward, one back, maybe another to the side…

As we all move beyond the fever pitch of Fat Tuesday, my greatest Carnival wish is that we never forget why we dance. It is for our very lives, each and every one of us. It shouldn’t require loads of money to know the steps.

All it needs is all of you.


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