While in New Orleans from San Francisco this Mardi Gras, I had the privilege of staying with friends who live on St. Charles Avenue, Uptown. On my first night there, I got to talking with John Johnson, the security guard whom my friends’ landlord had hired during the Mardi Gras festivities. Our conversation continued throughout my two-week stay.
NolaVie has covered John before. A New Orleans native, social justice warrior, and black man, John enlightened me about some less glamorous aspects of the fantastical celebration I’d flown in to experience.
At sixty years old, John has vivid memories of marching in the Mardi Gras parades as a child. He played the drums, clarinet, and trumpet. Schools were racially segregated back then, and John says black Mardi Gras performers were in high demand “because there was a widespread belief that black people have more rhythm and musical talent than other people.”
While John is not sure that’s true, he did say of black people, “You inherit a legacy of jazz.” He was describing a sort of birthright, a nod to the scores of ancestors and living elders whose legendary musical talent would make it seem there’s something to the myth. On the side of practice–not race–making perfect, John remarked, “Playing music is like learning a foreign language. It expands your mind.”
On its face, an invitation to perform in a Mardi Gras parade is an opportunity of epic proportions. What child raised in New Orleans doesn’t know the significance of those seemingly endless floats and unlimited beads, and become completely enthralled with the whole spectacle?
John, for one. Well, he loved it like anyone else, and took marching before the throngs for the honor it was. But he says he was always aware of a dark side to the extravaganza: the vestiges of Storyville. As described in NolaVie’s recent story, New Orleans permitted prostitution in the district for twenty years before rendering it illegal in 1917, and by the 1940s, the Storyville District was no more.
But it lives on, John says. “Look at the color of the people watching the parade, then look at the color of the people marching in it.” Uptown anyway, the contrast was as stark as black and white. “People made a lot of money being prostitutes and musicians,” John said of Storyville days. He said Mardi Gras runs on black people doing tricks at white people’s whims for money, which would suggest Storyville is not so far behind us after all. He added, “It’s an undercurrent of something that’s always been there.”
John said that for children marching in Mardi Gras, schools effectively shut down for half the school year, by ending every school day early, year round, for band practice. In the contest for worst Louisiana educational system, he estimated that New Orleans ranks fortieth. A polished band is a recruiting tool for schools that have a strong Mardi Gras presence, according to John–and once children enroll, the education becomes more about music and less about academics.
“Band leaders force the children to gyrate as they march,” John said, sharing that a band leader kicked his own daughter out of her childhood band because she had refused. In the two weeks of parades I’d seen, I had not noticed any overt or even covert child sexualization, so I pressed John on this. He assured me it happens, and that there’s more gyrating now than in the past.
John counts himself a regular witness to poor, black children standing on New Orleans street corners with buckets, to raise money for their private dance troupe uniforms. In those troupes, John says, children as young as three years old start learning erotic dance moves. He has seen some execute these moves on Elysian Fields and Claiborne.
While other children may simply stand in place or approach vehicles without any suggestive dancing, John questions the exposure of young children to strangers driving past. The adult troupe leader supervision does nothing to allay John’s concern: The children are vulnerable and exploited, he says, and being placed on the street to beg for money is a steep price for the undeniable privilege of marching in Mardi Gras parades.
“Most of these kids will end up working at Wendy’s,” John said. He estimates unemployment among black men in New Orleans to be fifty-two percent; and of that number, fifty percent marched in the parades while young, according to John. While he does not solely blame Mardi Gras for these bleak statistics, he knows the danger of its stardom-chasing effect, particularly in the absence of a strong educational system to round out the children’s musical educations.
John’s proposed solution? Schools and private dance troupes should base parade involvement on academics, such that only the students with the highest academic performances may participate.
While I remain a Mardi Gras fan, my interview with John gave me lots to consider. Like so many things in life, all that glitters about this treasured season is clearly not gold.
Katie Burke is a writer and family law attorney, who lives in San Francisco. She visits New Orleans annually to write, volunteer, visit friends, and dance to our world class brass music. Her encounters with New Orleans’ fascinating characters gives her a unique view into the soul of our city.