A Beer-Napkin Primer on Country Mardi Gras + A Complicated Story on Blackface

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Mardi Gras here was totally different than the carnival, free-tits-and beer fest that was New Orleans. The tradition around here reflected the hardscrabble life that the earliest descendants in the region endured. It was a whole Catholic trip, wrapped up in poverty and revelry too. 

Masked riders would head out in bands the day before Lent, making the rural circuit of their neighbors, dancing and fooling around in their costumes and screen-masks, hoping for an offering for the communal gumbo that would be the centerpiece of their last celebration before the forty days of Lent.

They wore masks because they were proud. They danced because, whatever hardships they endured, they couldn’t help but express a joie de vivre that couldn’t be snuffed out. They collected ingredients for the pot because that’s what Cajun people do; they cook amazing food from whatever’s around.

An excerpt from the first New Bayou Book, Tattoos and Tans

New Bayou Books is grounded deep in the muddy cultural roots of South Louisiana . . . but since our readers span the globe, let’s get the basics out of the way first: 

For Catholics, Mardi Gras is the last sanctioned party before Ash Wednesday, which kicks off the most boring (but sacred) 40 days on the Catholic calendar. 

The main element of the season of Lent is sacrifice. Booze, chocolate, cussing . . . every presumably heaven-bound Catholic better give something up if he wants to please God. Plus, you can’t eat meat on Fridays during Lent (hello shrimp po-boys and fried catfish!).

So, Mardi Gras is the last chance to party for a while. It’s a scaled-up version of the “Sinner on Saturday/Saint on Sunday” mentality. 

You probably already knew that much. 

What you might not know is, there’s two very distinct ways to celebrate Mardi Gras. As with most things, it’s a bit more nuanced than this, but it basically comes down to City Mardi Gras and Country Mardi Gras. 

You already know about City Mardi Gras. This is what New Orleans is famous for: lascivious dudes hanging from French Quarter balconies tossing beads down to endowed and usually inebriated women. There’s big parades, too . . . you’ve surely seen Treme by now.  

Country Mardi Gras is a different thing entirely. In Acadiana, the festivities involve masked, costumed horseback riders who basically spend the day getting drunk and tearing ass through the countryside having a really good time. 

The riders are mischievous. I like to think of them like modern day Merry Pranksters. Except, instead of a bus, it’s horseback. And instead of LSD, it’s Milwaukee’s Best or something along those lines (I’ve never met anyone who’s actually dropped acid and run Country Mardi Gras . . . but what a great idea for a book. Somebody should write that!).

At least two flatbed trucks follow the riders: one for beer, the other for a Cajun band. The band will play la danse de Mardi Gras many, many times throughout the day. Which is perfect, because the song is haunting and beautiful and strange. I can only imagine how weird it sounds when you’re tripping balls. 

But don’t take my word for it: Listen for Yourself

The riders stop frequently to put on a spectacle. They dance with pretty girls, roll around in ditches, steal toddlers, beg for nickels, and chase chickens. There’s a Captain, sort of like the prison warden on a chain gang, who sits atop his steed at the front of the procession wearing a purple cape and carrying a whip in one hand and a gunny sack with a few scared chickens in the other. Every so often, the Captain will release one of the chickens (or sometimes a guinea, his faster cousin) and the riders will pursue it through the fields. The birds all die that day (and end up in a gumbo pot), but as far as I know, no rider has ever been killed in the melee. 

Every Country Mardi Gras ends the same way: with everyone drunk and happy at the big dance that night. Gumbo is served. People dance. The last of the whiskey is drunk. The clock ticks towards midnight. 

I have to be totally honest with you: I always hated Country Mardi Gras.

I didn’t understand the traditions behind it all. I’m sure more than one relative tried to educate me, but I didn’t give a fuck. I just thought the whole thing was . . . well, embarrassing. 

One of my cousins had this annual Mardi Gras tradition. What he did was, he dressed up like a black mammy. Basically, Aunt Jamima. Full on black face. 

I was 15 or so when my sense of Country Mardi Gras haunt (embarrassment) reached its peak. This would’ve been around 1990. I had started to watch CSPAN for fun, relishing the fancy way all those educated people talked, holding it in contrast to my friends and family around me. The suspicion that I was better than all this started to come on strong. Oh yeah, I was definitely that kid. 

I remember glaring at my cousin one Mardi Gras, dressed as he was in his old dress, with his fake boobs and his darky make up. In that moment, I hated everything he represented, the rich tradition of Country Mardi Gras included. 

Now, as an almost 50 year old Cajun expat, I’m not so sure I had the slightest idea what was going on. I still know that cousin, and if there’s a man on this earth with a bigger heart than him, I’ve not met him. 

Why am I even bringing this up? I guess it’s because, just like Country Mardi Gras, there’s a complicated racial history in South Louisiana that I once thought I understood–but now I see in a very different light. 

It’s easy to paint a thing with a broad brush, to make a binary decision. City Mardi Gras, good. Blackface, racist. Maybe. 

But to my eye, a world painted in primary colors is fucking boring. The broad brush masks all kinds of granular and nuanced shading. And for me, that’s the interesting part.  

Happy Mardi Gras y’all.

Published by New Bayou Books

Jason P. Reed started New Bayou Books to spark a revolution in South Louisiana literature. The goal of the company is two fold: to discover great new writers from Acadiana while building a global community of readers and listeners. Join us! Sign the enlistment form.

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