Mardi Gras morning: A family affair

Niya’s father, Shaka Zulu (photo courtesy of: the Zulu family)

It seems as if no matter how early my Dad decides to get a “head start” on sewing, he always ends up rushing to finish on the day of Mardi Gras. Of course, he’s not the only one who goes through this every year – I’d say every Mardi Gras Indian has been through that at least once.

In my Dad’s case, it feels like the task becomes harder and harder to complete every year. As his ambitions get higher, and his suits become more elaborate, and he grows increasingly more intent on outdoing his work from last year, the suit that he imagines or scribbles down on poster boards becomes more and more difficult to realize every year.

In my household, we usually go by a sort of a formulaic routine that helps speed everything along. In the past, we were all convinced that the bigger the suit, the more hands he needed to help him. However, my dad eventually began to notice that more people only meant more voices to distract him from his work, so he started to make his “sewing parties” much smaller.

All the festivities going on around us would only hold us back. After all, this is no holiday. This is Mardi Gras. We can rest once it’s over and school and work starts to back up. Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of the month-or-so-long break, and once that’s over, it’s time to start working on the suit for real this time.

The Mardi Gras version is always rushed; there’s no time to finish all the pieces and a lot of them end up just being left off until they’re picked back up and added to the true finished product, displayed on Super Sunday. But, no surprise here – it’s always a last-minute ordeal. There’s just never enough time.

Some years, in the middle of rushing to finish on the day of, everyone just decides that there’s no way that everything will be done on time. It’s always a weirdly quiet and relaxed ordeal – everyone puts down what they’re doing, cleans up halfheartedly, goes home, and then sleeps for the rest of the day. All the planning, the restless nights and racing against time for nothing. It really is a gamble. That risk of an unfinished product one year, or a finished suit that took two or three years of work, is always an unforeseen possibility that lingers in everyone’s minds.

Still, upon seeing the actual finished product on the lucky years, you realize that it was all worth it. It’s never quite like you picture it in your head. Sometimes it’s even better. For a Mardi Gras Indian, the act of masking, of donning a year’s worth of labor and parading it around the city for everyone to praise or critique (or sometimes both), is basically the only part of the Mardi Gras season that involves actual festivities.

It’s the most rewarding part – seeing who’s the “prettiest,” who made it on time this year, and who’s taking a break until next year.

Part 2: Sewing since childhood

Editor’s Note: This story is one of a series reprinted from the book A Guide to South Louisiana: Stories of Uncommon Culture. Each author was a student in Rachel Breunlin’s “Storytelling and Culture” course for the Department of Anthropology at the University of New Orleans in the Spring of 2017. The Neighborhood Story Project sponsored the project as part of its mission to publish collaborative ethnography in high quality books in which the authors receive royalties for their creative labor.

 

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