As I write this, I’m looking out of my Frenchmen Street window watching a “Skull and Bones gang” and a “Mardi Gras Indian” prepare to parade down Frenchmen to Decatur.
Strange time of year, you say? Strange place to parade?
Well, you must be a native New Orleanian. You know the difference.
We know this is the wrong time and place for this to happen. But these activities are being staged for a movie that’s being shot in New Orleans (reportedly it’s a remake of the classic good-dog film, Benji—and there was a very cute dog running up and down the street).
It’s sort of interesting that the visual manifestations of our culture—Skull and Bones, Mardi Gras Indians, Mardi Gras floats, second line parades, jazz funerals, beads, costuming, French Quarter architecture, shotgun houses, Bourbon Street flashing, even stuff like crawfish boils and blackened redfish—are so visually identified worldwide as being “New Orleans.”
Authenticity is arguably the key to what New Orleans and Louisiana is all about. It makes us who we are. It’s the authenticity and sincerity of our people that brings all of this together. Ask anyone about the people here: They’re more friendly; they say hello; they’re concerned about their community and their neighbors. It’s what makes New Orleans a unique place to live, play and work.
But how do we hold onto that “authenticity”?
I’m not suggesting that our culture shouldn’t be used in a movie. That’s been done for years and years, although we seem to be on a high note, media-wise, with programs that showcase the city such as NCIS: New Orleans and HBO’s Treme, and with the many films that have been shot here and have used New Orleans locations and culture as a backdrop.
Maybe that’s the problem: culture as a backdrop, an incidental for visual “flavor.”
That sort of relegates who we are to a surface commodity. It’s fun and entertaining to watch. Yes, indeed it is, but there are people in our community who take our cultural traditions quite seriously and when that ceases, we’ll be nothing more than another empty Disneyland full of effects.
There was a time in my life when I wasn’t as involved in our local culture—when I was younger—and didn’t understand why it was so important to not only enjoy it, but to recognize the obligation that we all have to preserve it, and take action to do so.
There are several organizations that are dedicated to doing just this, and one that is dear to my heart is the Backstreet Cultural Museum (www.backstreetmuseum.org). Located in Treme, this small museum 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.
If you haven’t already, visit the museum at 1116 Henriette Delille, and help keep it alive by going to a benefit for the museum on Sunday, November 13 at Rock ’n’ Bowl from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. Advance tickets are available by calling (504) 657-6700 or (504) 621-8882.