Takin' it to the Streets - Mardi Gras Indians & Second Lines
Updated: Sep 19, 2022
Things to do: Backstreet Cultural Museum is back! It holds the world’s most comprehensive collection related to New Orleans’ African American community-based masking and processional traditions, including Mardi Gras Indians, jazz funerals, social aid and pleasure clubs, Baby Dolls, and Skull and Bone gangs. Book a visit!
Things to read:
There's a t-shirt, "Everything you love about New Orleans is because of Black People".
That statement carries a lot of truth and reinforces the need to appreciate the contributions of Caribbean & African-American roots here, as a warning against gentrification, homogenization, commodification and, ultimately, the erasure of the its culture. People are the real reason people visit New Orleans- people make the food, the music, the celebrations, the history and stories- without it, we don't have much to offer as a city. As a tour guide, part of my job is ensuring the appreciation and recognition of this culture to those outside of New Orleans in an effort to preserve it beyond the work of those involved in it directly.
Often obfuscated and secretive in an effort to protect it, black traditions in New Orleans tend to be oral and passed down through generations and family- the traditions of masking as Mardi Gras Indians & participating in Social Aid & Pleasure Clubs (a.k.a. benevolent or mutual aid societies) and second lines are great examples of living history, often hidden from outsiders, but open and welcome to all to enjoy.
You may see a wedding or birthday party second line through the French Quarter while you are visiting New Orleans and many people, even locals, don't know the roots of these traditions. Here is a great read and interactive virtual exhibit by Historic New Orleans Collection I recommend all the time to visitors and locals alike: Dancing in the Streets.
Here is a wonderful photo journal in Washington Post about Mardi Gras Indian traditions and how they've come back post-Covid. It has great photos & is a great intro to the traditions and music. If you want to see the Mardi Gras Indians in person aside from Mardi Gras Day, the big celebration to show their suits one last time before retiring them for the year are called the Super Sunday parades on St Joseph's Day weekend (May 19th is St Joseph's Day) and take place in two areas of the city. Though never guaranteed due to weather, it is a must for any amateur photographer and culture curious visitor to NOLA.