Mention the Skull and Bones anywhere outside the city of New Orleans, and the response will likely be some variation on the same themes of other NOLA clubs: presidents, Ivy Leaguers, and without question, rich white guys. However, New Orleans has a rich history of replacing old, dry practices with vibrant and colorful traditions of its own. The Skull and Bones of New Orleans is not a pathway for the privileged to Wall Street or the White House. Rather, it is one of the oldest historically black working class Mardi Gras secret societies.
The Northside Skull and Bone Gang began in the year 1819. According to Chief Bruce “Sunpie” Barnes, the gang’s founder was a sailor and merchant marine who came from South Africa and began masking as a skeleton in the historically black Tremé neighborhood of New Orleans. The Northside Skull and Bone Gang keeps no official records for its early years, but rather its history and traditions have been passed down to the present primarily through oral tradition. For Barnes, the gang is in part a reflection of its African heritage: “It’s African roots. It’s African based head-sense, basically” (Barnes, Bruce. Interviewed by John Bailey Cox. Personal interview. New Orleans, April 11, 2013). Yet, in its nearly two hundred year history, the Northside Skull and Bone Gang has come to embody a tradition that is distinctly black, working class New Orleans.
Mardi Gras Morning
For the Northside Skull and Bone Gang, Mardi Gras begins before the crack of dawn, officially kicking off Fat Tuesday for a significant portion of the city. According to Chief Barnes, “We’re the first thing in the street, basically. At 5:30, most people are dead to the world. They’re either coming back home, staggering home, or they’re in the bed, and they haven’t gotten up yet” (Barnes). Gang members hit the streets carrying noisemakers and over sized animal bones, obtained from slaughterhouses along Highway 90. They walk from house to house, banging on doors, singing songs, and yelling at the homes’ occupants to wake up. The message: “Want or don’t want, it’s Carnival one more time” (Barnes). The gang starts in the sixth ward, the gang’s traditional stomping ground, but they walk all over the city, logging ten to fifteen miles by the end of the day. Following no set route, they simply meander wherever the spirit of the day leads. Their musical repertoire consists of percussive, vocal-driven songs penned by Chief Barnes himself, who reports receiving gang standards such as “Too Late,” “We Are the Northside Skull and Bone Gang,” and “Zoli Marché An Dans Bonne Heure” in his dreams. The gang possessed no songs before the arrival of Barnes, a successful musician in his own right with his band Sunpie and the Louisiana Sunspots.
An example of the economic yet haunting costumes donned by the Northside Skull and Bone Gang. Photo by Brian Oberkirch.
The Skull and Bone costume is perhaps the most striking aspect of the group’s presentation. Unlike the elaborately designed and crafted feathered costumes of the Mardi Gras Indians, another type of black, working class Mardi Gras gangs, the “Dead Man Suits” are of a markedly more rough-and-ready nature. Because many of the gang’s original members were working class men in poorer black neighborhoods, most of them could not afford the expensive materials such as silks and satins prevalent in other more elaborate Mardi Gras costumes. Rather, the costumes have traditionally been constructed from simpler, more readily available materials. According to Chief Barnes, “We use paper, we use flour, bailing wire. The most basic tools. You know, our tradition started with the poorest people in the city, so it doesn’t cost a whole lot to mask skeleton” (Barnes). Yet, rather than being a sacrifice of authenticity, this makeshift manner of producing the mask allows for further creative expression. Chief Barnes, for example, throughout the year collects specific newspaper articles that are of special importance to him. In this way, each costume that he makes carries special personal significance (Litwin, Sharon. “Skull and Bones Gang channels spirit of Mardi Gras.” Nola.com. February 16, 2012. Web.). The masks are painted to resemble large skulls, ranging from grotesque to benign to genuinely frightening. The suits themselves are quite simple, usually consisting of all-black clothing painted with basic white skeletal structures. Around the waist are tied aprons with simple drawings and handwritten text, including such messages as, “you next,” “come with me to hell,” and “drug did it to me.”
The phrase “you next,” is something of a mantra for the Northside Skull and Bone Gang. It is written on most of their costumes, and yelled in the streets by the gang’s members. This is reflective of the group’s general theme. One of the gang’s goals is to warn the younger generations away from the dangerous aspects of the streets, such as violence and drug use. Using their fictitious death as an example, they warn the youth with messages such as, “Make your move to change your life now, or else you will become like me”(“Skull and Bone Gang Wakes You Up on Mardi Gras Morning…” Federicaville: A Backpack Journalist Blog. February 18, 2010. Web). Both to engage the youth and to keep the tradition of the Skull and Bone Gang alive, the group has enlisted younger generations, and children can be seen in the skeleton costumes, participating in the festivities. However, the message is not reserved for just the youth. As Chief Barnes remarks, “We’re a full membership club. You’re not getting out of this. Everybody’s gonna get it” (Barnes). Through word, song, and appearance, the Skull and Bone Gang attempts to make people confront their own mortality, and answer tough questions about the way they’re living this life and preparing for the next one. Chief Barnes likens seeing a dead on man on the street to having a mirror held in front of you. And everybody reacts differently:
“People embrace the moment and have fun with it as well, but often you have people who, I don’t care what age they are, they’re gonna run, they’re gonna scream. They do it all. They slam and lock their doors. It’s like, ‘Okay, cool. But I’ve seen you, and you’ve seen me.’ And they don’t forget the ‘you next’ part” (Barnes).
The theme of the Skull and Bone Gangs extends beyond simply warning people about their imminent doom. The group draws rich significance from the tradition of Mardi Gras itself. In the words of Chief “Sunpie” Barnes, “It’s the embodiment of Carnival. We are like the literal meaning of the shedding of the flesh, that’s what Carnival is all about” (Barnes). Furthermore, by dressing up as the dead, the group’s members attempt to pay homage to their ancestors and the people who lived and died before them. Chief Barnes elaborates on what he calls “spirit work,” saying, “Our purpose when we come out on Mardi Gras day is basically we’re bringing spirits back. We bring back our past family spirits and all the spirits from the cemetery to the streets, and turn ‘em loose on Mardi Gras day in the morning for Carnival” (Barnes).
The Future of Skull and Bone
Today the Northside Skull and Bone Gang represents a unique contribution from an African American community in New Orleans that has struggled in the face of crime, harmful urban planning and Hurricane Katrina. The tradition wavered in the early twentieth century, what Barnes calls the natural “ebb and flow.” A former member, Al Morris, brought the gang back to life, and recruited Barnes, the current chief to join him. For a time, these were the only two members of the gang, and they paraded alone, keeping the tradition alive. Through hard work, Barnes has seen the Northside Skull and Bone Gang thrive once more, and he expresses his hopes hope that the tradition will live on beyond him. In the chief’s words, “Will the culture survive? Hell yes, it’s going to survive. It won’t be easy, though” (Winkler-Schmit, David. “Sacred Ground.” Gambit. January 22, 2008).