This post appeared in an earlier form some ten months ago. It seems most fitting in this newer version today, on Fat Tuesday.
It was 1983. I was new to Mobile, a Birmingham native who had moved southward. The Old South roots of this sleepy coastal town were odd to me, its fanatical obsession with appearances and social place quaint at first, then tiresome. Birmingham was a blue collar town regardless of the fact it held one of the wealthiest communities in the nation. Built on sparks and belching smoke and the sweat of those who wrested honest pay from honest work. It was a steel town.
Mobile was a cotton town, a place steeped in deference to family names and a seeming need to keep its hardscrabble reality hidden behind a moldy curtain of threadbare antiquity.
And Mardi Gras is the biggest portion of that. The festival was born from Mobile’s Catholic heritage, a carryover of European founders.
The first parade I attended was less remarkable than anticipated. People on the floats threw cheap trinkets to the crowds and I didn’t understand the maniacal pursuit of the plastic beads and candy.
But what I remember most clearly were the masked riders on horseback, obviously intoxicated. When I took note of the African-American men who marched beside the floats, draped in cheap smocks and holding antique oil lamps, it furrowed my brow.
It was obvious they weren’t needed for illumination, the modern street lights were more than ample. So what was the point?
All the riders were white. Why were the torch bearers all black?
I knew the region and its sentiments. This was an obvious nod to “the good ol’ days,” when everyone knew their place. Suddenly the vision of these black men in theatrical subservience walking beside masked white men on horseback took an ominous tone.
Especially when considering the Mobile Klan had lynched a youth just two years previous.
Years passed, I learned of parallel Mardi Gras organizations for the still mostly separate races. White folks rationalized it. Black folks had no choice but to accept it.
In my own explorations, my own attempts to understand it, I attended a Mardi Gras ball. It wasn’t too bad, a good excuse to dress up and cut loose for a night. Besides, who doesn’t feel pretty swank in white tie and tails?
At the ball, I noticed after a few hours that though every last person in attendance was white, all the servers were African-American. A little digging turned up the revelation that it was a purposeful thing, part of the “mystique.”
The woman who revealed this ugliness to me had asked me to accompany her to another ball. Her father belonged to the group, or "mystic society," hosting the event and her fiance was unable to attend. You see, he was from India and though he was from the upper crust at home, his dark skin excluded his participation in this realm. Most shocking was her nonchalant acceptance of this and remaining desire to participate.
Me? I refused to attend another ball.
But Mardi Gras was more than just an excuse for revelry. It was a system by which the upper crust of the town flaunted their privilege and power, another way for them to fortify the connections they all had which kept things tightly knit and closed on a town nearly 300 years old.
Mardi Gras also served to keep locals distracted, a pittance thrown to the underlings.
I later discovered that the Mobilian credited with reviving Mardi Gras, after the Civil War dampened its processions, designated his crew of revelers “The Lost Cause Minstrels.” Little wonder that the broken Greek column that still crops up so frequently as a Mardi Gras symbol is an unspoken metaphor for fallen antebellum society.
Mobile's Mardi Gras also reveals a massive chip on the civic shoulder about New Orleans' more famous celebrations, something evident every time locals defensively sputter about Mobile's event as "the FAMILY Mardi Gras." The reality is that there is enough vomitus and violence, mullets and methamphetamine in the Mobile event to dispel that notion.
More telling is that New Orleans elects a celebrity to serve as the "ruler" of Mardi Gras every year. To speak of such in Mobile would be blasphemous as their monarchs must come from the most powerful of their insular ranks. It shows the difference in essential attitudes. In New Orleans, it's about having fun. In Mobile, it's more than that.
These excerpts are from Margaret Brown’s “The Order of Myths.” The native Mobilian grew up in the privileged segment of Mobile and knows of what she reveals. The documentary is one of the best that I’ve seen in a long time and what it says and shows about Mobile is as accurate as anything I’ve witnessed.
Do yourself a tremendous favor and rent it. Watch it twice to catch all the layers and nuance. Then watch it again with the director's comments audible and you'll gain even more insight.
In fairness, some things have changed. A tiny number of the newer societies will allow varying ethnicities and couples of mixed racial composition to attend. But it's slow to change. And the older, more important and powerful groups will never do so, anymore than they would allow white folks of lower social status to join their ranks.
To live here is to live on the last great plantation.
There’s a Mardi Gras museum on Mobile’s grand boulevard, an historic manor that is little more than a house of worship to squander, to shocking amounts of wealth burned on exaltation of social rank. I recall looking at a display of gold-plated dinnerware used only once for a lavish affair and its value quoted by the docent equaled the number I heard earlier that day as the amount needed for an impoverished child's life-saving organ transplant, something his family was scrambling against time to collect. It broke my heart.
If one ever expresses puzzlement at Mardi Gras, the common response from locals is “Well, you’re not from here so you can’t understand.” Aside from the fact that the same rationalization was used for past Southern injustices, it’s underlying sentiment is “You’ll never be fully accepted here.”
Yet never has the idea of "exclusion" sounded so flattering.