Why Carnival Should Persevere
There’s more to it than you might think
During the immediate post-Katrina days of 2005 Mayor Ray Nagin went to the Northshore one Sunday evening to talk to a group of displaced New Orleanians. They wanted to know about the condition of the city and when they could expect to go home again.
When taking questions, one person made the comment, with fiery tones, that because of the hardships they were facing and the condition of the city there should not be a Mardi Gras celebration in 2006. Others in the crowd offered muffled support to that statement. Nagin was caught off guard but gave an answer that, while not definitive, suggested agreement.
Not considered were the TV cameras from New Orleans stations in the back of the room. Out of all the issues that were discussed that night the Mardi Gras question became the lead story in the evening news and was a headliner in the next day’s newspaper. There was outrage throughout the community – and it wasn’t muffled.
Nagin eventually qualified his response and gave his guarded support to staging Carnival. Truth is, the issue was about more than parades and partying. New Orleans’ Mardi Gras is one of the best known celebrations in the world. However, in the days after the levees broke there had been global media coverage of the city being battered and flooded while desperate folks were being rescued by helicopters from roofs. New Orleans, a city known for joy, was for the time the poster image for disaster.
Had Carnival 2006 been cancelled the word would have quickly spread that New Orleans was so ruined that it could not even stage a parade. It would have been a long term economic and psychological disaster.
But the krewes saved the day. There were parades. Some were cobbled together by organizations combining each other’s floats; others marched at their full strength. (The Rex organization even had to search for a blacksmith to fix the ancient spoked wagon wheels of its floats.) New Orleans, the world would know, was alive. Because of the assuring message it sent, Carnival 2006 was one of the season’s finest hours.
(I divert briefly to make a technical point. “Mardi Gras,” like Christmas cannot be cancelled because that is a date on the calendar. What can be cancelled are public events that are part of the celebrations of the day.)
Far different was the dastardly Carnival 1979 when the parades in Orleans Parish were cancelled because of a police strike, which left the city, despite the help of the National Guard and the State police, without its first line of protection. Some of the New Orleans parades rolled in Jefferson Parish that year. Others stayed in their den. What locals still remember was the afternoon of Mardi Gras when the French Quarter was filled with masked revelers, celebrating extra hard as though to defy the strikers, who by that day had lost their leverage. There were no parades, but the spirit grew stronger.
A virus presents different issues than do hurricanes or civil discord, but the seriousness of potentially cancelling Carnival celebrations should not be diminished. During the early days of the pandemic, media reports said that New Orleans was a “hot spot.” Louisiana had extremely high rates of infection and deaths – at one point the highest number within any entity in the world. Those numbers would gradually decrease however, the image would linger. To this day people think the city is under the high water of disease. As the statistical curve flattens, political leaders need to show the world that the city is whole and safe again and to avoid discussions that would keep people away.
No celebration entwines as many cultures, races and traditions as does our Carnival. The versatility of our rhythms is rich including Mardi Gras Indian chants and the Grand March from Aida. Look around: There are kings, captains, big chiefs and spy boys.
I once had a call from a man in Los Angeles who wanted information about how to start a Mardi Gras.
My answer: “First you get 300 years…”
During the police strike I was at a supermarket one evening when I saw a friend. We both bemoaned what had happened. “I don’t even like Mardi Gras,” the friend said, “now I miss it.”
New Orleans would be just another city without it.
BOOK ANNOUNCEMENT: Errol’s Laborde’s books, “New Orleans: The First 300 Years” and “Mardi Gras: Chronicles of the New Orleans Carnival” (Pelican Publishing Company, 2017 and 2013), are available at local bookstores and at book websites.
WATCH INFORMED SOURCES, FRIDAYS AT 7 P.M., REPEATED AT 9:30 A.M. SUNDAYS.WYES-TV, CH. 12.