To hear Sharon Litwin interview Sunpie Barnes on WWNO radio, click here.
In Rio, they samba their way through Carnival in the skimpiest of costumes, while in Italy, you can’t tell a real contessa from a one-day wannabe as maskers showcase their over-the-top period fashion statements around Venice.
In New Orleans, our sartorial splash ranges from the silks and satins of myriad masked balls to the extraordinary beads and the feathers of the Mardi Gras Indians.
But over in the 6th ward of New Orleans … well, over there, masking is a little simpler and, some might say, a little more macabre.
It’s there, in Treme, historically the first neighborhood north of the original French Quarter, that the North Side Skull and Bones Gang celebrates Carnival. Under the leadership of its Chief, Bruce “Sunpie” Barnes, they follow a tradition begun in 1819.
“What we do is in the real spirit of Mardi Gras, we think; a sort of shedding of the flesh,” Sunpie explains, adding that it is one way “people give honor to the family spirits that went before them.”
Rising before dawn, costumed as skeletons, the Gang takes seriously their task to “wake folk up to Mardi Gras Day.” There’s a street ritual unique to the group; songs to be sung (one of which came to Sunpie in a dream); young men to be “scared straight”; doors to be knocked on; and all before the sun rises and the parades begin.
Unlike the Indians, who often have quite public rehearsals, the Bone Gang does theirs privately. Sunpie says it’s part of the mystery of the organization, one that had almost died out before he became Chief. Now he has one goal in mind: to keep it going.
“The only way to keep any tradition going is to be consistent,” Sunpie says. And to that end he has engaged the next generation of young African-American men to dress out with him.
Because the origins of the Gang were with working class folk who had little money for silks and satins, the skeleton suits are made from everyday items and simple fabrics. Baling wire (to construct the shape of the head) along with flour and water to bind together old newspapers, create the head itself. All year long, Sunpie gathers newspapers with articles of civic and social importance to him. In this way, a kind of spiritual statement is retained in each costume, particularly his.
“We make our aprons with a skeleton bone emblem on them,” he says. “And it says: ‘You Next.’ So don’t be acting the fool, ‘cos you can’t get around it. You Next!”
With this visual threat of a negative future, the Gang’s goal is a scary statement designed to demand that the community (especially the younger members) stay away from the bad aspects of the streets.
“We try to warn them away from violence,” Sunpie explains, “especially gun violence and domestic violence.”
It’s a uniquely New Orleans tradition. If you want to see it, you’ll have to get up early, because Sunpie and the Skull and Bones Gang start out before dawn, somewhere around 5 a.m., from the Back Street Cultural Museum,1116 Henriette de Lisle Place (formerly St. Claude Street), across from St. Augustine Church.
Sharon Litwin, who writes about culture and community in New Orleans, is president of NolaVie.