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Big Easy Living: How Carnival defines the culture

By Renee Peck

Don’t dismiss Carnival as empty narcissistic revelry just yet.

The way Tulane University sociologist Diane Grams explains it, parade culture defines us, in a very real and meaningful way.

“When you start looking at the organization of Mardi Gras as a parading culture, and the whole thing about being out on the street, it reflects a culture that is structured by performance and ritual, as opposed to institutions,” Grams explains.

In other American cities, she elaborates, social structure is largely based on cultural institutions – museums, theaters, orchestras, ballet companies and the like. Becoming a member or serving on the board of an august organization becomes indicative of social status.

In New Orleans, we have our cultural institutions, but social structure is far more impacted by groups that are engaged in activities. About the time the Boston Brahmins were setting up their symphony and art museum, we were lining up to watch the first Comus and Rex parades.

“The parade is the defining aspect of this culture based on performance and ritual,” Grams says. “A performance is something that takes place over time, ends, and exists in collective memory, like a play or a concert. It requires participation.”

Like a good Carnival parade.

In fact, throwing and catching beads is intrinsic to our parading culture. It makes us unique. Elsewhere across the globe, parades are almost exclusively militaristic, more about spectacle than participation. People stand and watch. Here we dive in.

“(Sociologist Emile) Durkheim talked about collective effervescence,” Grams says. “It’s a sense of communicating and bonding when we gather to celebrate. You let go of the ‘I’ and ‘me’ and become a collective group, a community.”

And that happens, she says, along every parade route. Riders play their parts by teasing, commanding, withholdin and throwing beads; watchers reciprocate by begging, competing, and catching them. People get worked up into a frenzy.

“The ritual happens when that barrier between the audience and the performers dissolves, and they become one entity,” Grams says. “That exchange, that gifting of throws, is the ritual.”

According to Gram, the vast majority of New Orleanians know all the unwritten rules of parading, and Carnival.

“At midnight on Mardi Gras, everyone leaves. They know the celebration is over. They’re aware of the parameters of the ritual.”

Grams has been studying and documenting the city’s parading culture since moving here in 2007, and is working on a book along those lines. She is particularly interested in second lines, an aspect of the parading culture she discovered shortly upon arrival, after a spur-of-the-moment invitation to one by Monk Boudreaux’s daughter.

“There are close to 50 social aid and pleasure clubs here, and a parade almost every Sunday except during Carnival,” Grams says. “I love the names – The Perfect Gentlemen, Uptown Swingers, Original Prince of Wales, New Orleans Bayou Steppers, Ladies of Unity.”

“People here know how to gather and celebrate,” Grams says. “At last year’s Super Bowl parade, I was standing near Lee Circle in this immense crowd, and the floats stopped. The football players climbed down from the floats and mingled with the crowd, everyone hugging and taking pictures, a real love fest. That never would have happened anywhere else.”

During her first year in New Orleans, Grams kept her best parade catches pinned to her apartment wall for months. A neighbor noticed, she says, and told her gently, “We were taught that we had to put all of our Mardi Gras stuff away after Carnival.”

It’s true. No self-respecting local would wear a string of plastic pearls in October, as we see visitors do. My daughters would never flash for beads, and I can’t buy a king cake in July. We know the ritual.

We also know how to have fun. And that sets us apart just as concretely as the throw-and-catch aspect of parade culture, Grams believes.

America was founded as a land of Puritans, where the Protestant ethic dictates working hard to earn a place in heaven.

“The Protestant ethic was to repress any public display of pleasure,” Grams explains.

Here, conversely, we live in the moment. Maybe it’s the whole Catholic thing. Or European influences. Or the impact of black culture, dating back to days in Congo Square when slaves gathered and drummed on Sundays.

Whatever, the essence of our tendency to gather – and celebrate — has been evident since the city’s founding. When you live in a hurricane zone, below sea level, where mold is rampant and things tend to rot, you learn to enjoy experiences rather than possessions.

“That helped with rebuilding after Katrina,” Grams says. “It means that after a disaster, we know how to come together. We invest not in things, but in relationships.”

If objects of a ritual become symbols of who we are, then beads become symbols of the fact that we can recover, that we are a community.

“It is in that moment of heightened awareness – catching a bead – when meaning occurs. It’s not just a celebration, but a moment of coming together and bonding at a positive moment,” Grams says. “It’s such a beautiful thing.”

Collective effervescence.

Remember that when you reach out to snag a Rex medallion or a Zulu coconut tomorrow.

Diane Grams, Assistant Professor of Sociology at Tulane University, has just published Producing Local Color: Art Networks in Ethnic Chicago, (University of Chicago Press 2010), and is working on a book comparing New Orleans to Chicago. She will be writing for NolaVie about her ethnographic research of public parades, Mardi Gras Indians and Sunday Second Line Parades.


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