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© Algiers Brass Band in Mardi Gras Parade, New Orleans, USA 1992 Photograph by Syndey Byrd

Carnival in New Orleans is known as Mardi Gras - French for Fat Tuesday. The celebration was introduced by French groups from Europe and the Caribbean who settled here at the beginning of the 18th century. Following aristocratic European models, the festivities took the form of private balls sponsored by wealthy citizens. On Sunday afternoons enslaved and free Africans, who had been brought here to work on the plantations, were allowed to congregate at a place called the Congo Market. Here they celebrated their own Mardi Gras with music, song, and dance. In the mid-19th century uptown society men began to form secret male societies, known as krewes, that put on public Carnival parades of floats followed by elegant balls for their members.

Krewes became a primary aspect of New Orleans Mardi Gras and over time other social and racial groups in the city formed their own exclusive societies. Today over 60 different krewes sponsor public parades of floats and invitational masquerade balls. Some working class African Americans of New Orleans created Carnival troupes known as Mardi Gras Indians who march through their own neighborhoods on Fat Tuesday. Multitudes of other Mardi Gras revelers congregate in the oldest section of the city, the French Quarter, where they costume, eat, drink, listen to music, and dance in the streets.

© Rex on His Throne in the Krewe of Rex Parade,
New Orleans, USA 1981
Photograph by Syndey Byrd

Each year many of the larger New Orleans Carnival societies, or krewes, ride on their own elaborate parade floats built around annual themes. Most of the older elite krewes associate themselves with classic mythology, decorating their floats and wearing costumes related to ancient Greek or Roman royalty. The Krewe of Rex came out with their first parade in 1872 and created the tradition of crowning a king of Carnival known as Rex (Latin for King). The Krewe of Rex parade annually draws hundreds of thousands of spectators who wait to see the King of Mardi Gras pass by.

© Queen of the Krewe of Petronius Ball,
New Orleans, USA 1993
Photograph by Syndey Byrd

Mickey Gil vamps as the Queen of Petronius, a krewe of gay men, wearing a costume with fireworks attached to the back. Gay men in New Orleans began to create their own krewes in the late 1950s. Initially faced with discrimination and harassment, these have become an integral part of Mardi Gras today. Straight and gay people alike covet invitations to their Mardi Gras balls where floorshows, called tableaus, are full of wit and political commentary.

© Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club,
New Orleans, USA 2001
Photograph by Syndey Byrd

The Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club is the leading black krewe in New Orleans today. It began in 1909 when a group of black longshoremen saw a musical comedy featuring an African-American actor in blackface dressed as an African king. They decided to adopt this character as a Carnival masquerade to poke fun at black stereotypes as well as to burlesque the image of Rex as the king of

Mardi Gras. Out of this smirking parody evolved a black organization rooted in the working and middle classes. Their parade, one of the most beloved in the city today, features African American men in blackface clad in grass skirts handing out gilded coconuts. Their clubhouse is the center for a variety of charity and social events and services throughout the year.

© Big Chief Allison "Tootie" Montana and other members of the Yellow Pocahontas Mardi Gras Indian Tribe,
New Orleans, USA 1986
Photograph by Syndey Byrd

The New Orleans' tradition of African Americans dressing as Native Americans dates to the early 19th century. During their dance performances in the Congo Market black slaves sometimes added feathers, animal skins, ribbons, and bells to their costumes and acted as Indians. This was a form of emulation and identification with the local indigenous people with whom the blacks were closely allied. In the 1880s, after emancipation from slavery, gangs of black laborers formalized this practice by creating tribes and masquerading as Indians. The Mardi Gras celebration became a time to parade through the streets of their neighborhoods dancing and singing to improvisational rhythms played on percussion instruments. This tradition continues today with family members belonging to the same Mardi Gras Indian tribe from one generation to another.


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