Thursday, February 16, 2012

Mardi Gras, always marching forward

An excellent column appeared in The Times-Picayune today that chronicled the fight against discrimination within Mardi Gras organizations. James Gill writes of New Orleans City Councilwoman Dorothy Mae Taylor and the cause she championed:

Her mission was to force old-line krewes and private luncheon clubs to abandon racism and sexism. For all that the more open, free-and-easy Mardi Gras of today may be claimed as her legacy, she would not have been satisfied.

Her main goal was to force the white business establishment to open its portals to black people. Deals were being hatched where only white male gentiles were allowed to tread, she alleged.

The "Big Four" old-line krewes of Mardi Gras - Rex, Comus, Momus, and Proteus - had historically clung to the Carnival tradition of secrecy. The identities of each organization's members had long been a closely guarded secret, but Taylor's ordinance required every krewe to sign an affidavit guaranteeing that membership shall not be denied to anybody on the basis of discrimination. "This was too much," Gill says, for Comus and Momus, who refused to disclose the identities of their members (which would have been an effect of signing the affidavit) and chose to suspend their parades.

What we have in this story is a classic example of the tension between tradition and progress. Exclusivity is the key component to the prestige of certain clubs... not just anybody can be a member. But in a city with a complicated racial history swirling around Mardi Gras (The Zulu organization, for example, famously formed in 1916 as the African-American response to being excluded from the all-white Rex.), it's absurd to refuse not to discriminate on the basis of race, and citing history as a defense.

While many people have griped about governmental intrusion and regulations into what they considered private social clubs/parades (See, for example, the results of a poll accompanying the Gill column on, many others here and outside our city limits have to acknowledge the far better impression NO makes as a warm, friendly city that doesn't let tradition trump inclusiveness and respect for others.  

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