Many people have dreams about visiting New Orleans during Mardi Gras. They go, shake their booty down the street, and then go home. Understandable, as Mardi Gras is a pretty wild celebration and is reason alone to visit New Orleans. But if you manage to get to New Orleans outside of February, things are a bit quieter and that allows you the time to actually learn about the festival rather than only dance down the street with beads around your neck.
There are a few places within the city where one can learn about Mardi Gras but on my trip to New Orleans, I specifically chose The Backstreet Cultural Museum. Read on to find out why!
What is Mardi Gras?
It is a big party but there is more to it than drunken revelry. Mardi Gras was brought to North America by the French (in fact, the term actually means Fat Tuesday). The celebration has roots dating back to ancient times as a fertility/springtime festival. Today, it is celebrated right before Lent, making it a time for “feasting and merrymaking”. Mardi Gras has a long, complicated history; as I only had time to briefly skim the surface of this celebration, I wanted to focus on how Mardi Gras is expressed in the African-American community.
Where can you learn about Mardi Gras in the African-American Community?
When you’re in New Orleans, make the time to head out to the Backstreet Cultural Museum. This museum is located in Tremé, the oldest African-American neighbourhood in the U.S. Sylvester Francis, the museum founder, started Backstreet Cultural Museum in 1988. Over the years it grew and today, it has a large collection of Mardi Gras items relating to New Orleans’ African-American community. The items displayed by the museum demonstrate both mask and processional traditions. I was particularly interested in the Mardi Gras costumes themselves.
What is there to learn about costumes?
Plenty! For example, did you know there are different types of traditions and costumes for Mardi Gras? Three examples specific to the African-American community are as follows:
Skull and Bone Gangs: These gangs wander the streets in the early hours of Mardi Gras day to “stir the spirits”. In doing so, they are working to keep sickness and injury away from the celebration! The Skull and Bone gangs are easily recognizable because they walk on stilts while wearing skeleton suits.
Baby Dolls: This tradition and costume is fairly simple and straightforward. It essentially entails women wearing fancy dresses. Easy enough!
Mardi Gras Indians: First thing to make clear here is that when it comes to Mardi Gras Indians (MGI), the clothes they are wearing are not called “costumes” – they are called “suits”. The concept of MGI has a long history; in fact, it is said to be rooted in resistance to slavery. Enslaved black people who managed to escape bondage in the 18th– and 19th-centuries sometimes found shelter among the Native Americans. MGI evolved from that bond, developing into a proud cultural legacy. The suits themselves are amazing. Each one is handmade and features beads, sequins, shells, feathers, etc. Each suit takes up to one year to make, is worth up to $10,000, and is only ever worn a couple of times in the year they were made!
What else is there to see at the Backstreet Museum?
The museum’s collection of photos and video footage record over thirty years of Mardi Gras celebrations and traditions. They heavily feature Mardi Gras costumes and suits, jazz funerals (processions that honour musicians or members of social aid and pleasure clubs), and second lines (people who follow the “first line” band, enjoying the music). It’s pretty neat to look through this history of celebrations!
The museum also features costumes and finery from the city’s social aid and pleasure clubs. These clubs developed from “benevolent societies”, groups that were historically (i.e. during the time of segregation) formed to provide their members with necessary support such as educational assistance, insurance, etc. The clubs are also key in providing entertainment and social gatherings for the community.
The Backstreet Cultural Museum
I’m sure by now you’re expecting a grand museum, a place where you can spend quite a while admiring costumes. Well…not really. This museum is very small and very cramped. Remember, it is a “homemade” museum, not a fancy one. Signs are simply made, costumes and suits are squished into every available corner, and most walls are covered in photos and memorabilia. But needless to say, it’s a fun place, especially if you get to meet Sylvester Francis (the founder) who is normally there. His love and passion for what he created shines through. Exchanging a few words with him makes you fully appreciate that it was because of one man’s dream that a cultural legacy and a people’s history has been preserved for the world to see.