Grossed Out


There’s a lot in the race and class dynamics of Mardi Gras that are subtler than we realize – or maybe they aren’t at all and we simply look the other way. (Not sure which I feel is the case.) There was no getting around footage on television last night of African-American valets helping Rex get dressed before the parade, putting on his socks and shoes. In 2009, that’s simply revolting.

  • Subtle????? And just what kind of night riders do you thing are on those horses at the start of the Proteus Parade?

    But the great thing about Mardi Gras is that is much larger than any one claim on it. Rex and Comus’ pretensions aside, we should know the real kings (and queens of course) are selected (or reveal themselves) on the streets and are not preselected in super-exclusive club rooms.

  • Jeff

    Would it have been less revolting if they had been white?

  • Alex Rawls

    Yes. Then I’d have merely been revolted by the class issues and not the race issues.

  • Jeff

    Are class issues and race issues really different things?

    I’m not trying to be argumentative, just trying to sort out the actual source the revulsion. We generally accept service industry type jobs. It is a way for poor people to get some of the rich people’s money, by doing stuff the rich folks don’t want to do.

    Our collective national history, as it relates to race specifically, casts that scene in a very different light, than how we would see it without that background. The background is there however, so I guess we must deal with it.

    I read a great George Lewis (trombonist, scholar, author, genius) statement on history: “We’re looking at the paradox that you want to have the history or experiences, but at a certain point, history becomes meaningless and should just not exist, otherwise you become its prisoner. That’s a common conceit. To be without history means you’re not responsible and can sort of do what you want. From my standpoint, as a descendant of slaves, I don’t want to be disconnected from that history, because people tried to erase it, and we spent all that time getting it back. But I want to be able to abandon it when necessary, to reach these other places that I want to go.”

  • Good question, and the answer lies in the particulars of history. I understand George’s desire to be unbound from a history he sees as limiting his purview as an artist. But of course that desire is historically bounded, as evidenced by his need as an African-American artist to it express it in the face of the prerogative of majority culture artists to act as if they are not beholden to the same history.

    To return to Mardi Gras and New Orleans, race and class are two categories with a complex and dynamic interaction. I spent one year working the Mardi Gras balls and related social events for local caterers. It quickly became apparent to me that when dealing with the “old line” krewes I was an interloper with no standing in the more-or-less fixed race/class order, and that order was essentially a master/slave relationship. While I was ostensibly hired to be a bartender (whether at the back stage dressing areas of the ball or at private homes) by the caterer, most of the time the role of making and serving drinks fell to (and was claimed) by African-Americans, whose connections to the members and their families and friends was long standing.

    The intimacy implied in the act of helping someone into their socks is one with a long history of such interaction between the white aristocracy and the black servants. In many ways, these balls are regression to childhood for these supposedly powerful members. Once again, they can go back to their blessed childhoods when apparently loving black servants catered to their every need while they have to do is dress up and play.

    I met dressers who’s connection to the “leading” families covered several generations, on both sides of the equation. As a temporary hired hand, one without any common history with either the servants or the served, I was the face of alienated labor at its most alienated entering a world where power and status (again, on both sides of the equation) was not based on competence or effort at the job at hand but on family and familiarity.

    The fantasy of Mardi Gras for the old line krewes revolves around the same notions of a more human (humane?) social order under the supposed paternalistic and feudal order of the Old South. Notice how many of the themes of the parades and balls are drawn from the romanticized (or fully imagined) retellings of feudal history. (The Klu Klux Klan and other Southern apologists drew on the same imagery during the battles of the Reconstruction period.) Notice how paternalistic Rex rules Pro Bono Publico, yet he’s always up there on his thrown and the masses are always down on the ground begging for his favors.

    The ideology of romanticized feudalism tells of a fixed society in which everyone has his place as opposed to the anarchic competition of industrial Capitalist society, where everyone and thing has its price, and price is the only measure of value. The New Orleans’ upper orders like to thing they are a true aristocracy in such a feudal world–or at least such is the fantasy they can indulge in at Mardi Gras. And what this ideology strives to hide is that their fortunes are as tightly bound with the capitalist industrial order as any other. The slave world depended not only on alienated labor power but on totally alienated laborers who did not even own themselves but rather were pure capital investment–and no tradition of familial connection between master and slave can unbind this awful history. And of course, the fortunes of New Orleans were made in trading the products of slave production on the global market for use in industrial processes.

    Thus, if you are a Marxist in good standing, you will see that class is an objective reality of the Capitalist system,and race is an ideological obsfucation, a product of false consciousness. At the same time it is an ideological obsfucation with a imposing history, one that we can’t wish away either in the name of “scientific materialism” or “art.”

  • Alex Rawls

    I was a little brain-jammed with a weekend of funerals, but Ben handled this question better than I ever could. As much as I respect Lewis, his quote essentially says that he’d like to stay connected to his history when it serves him, but be freed from it when it doesn’t.

    We’d all like to be free from history, but that means freeing ourselves from the past and the narratives that shaped the people and world around us, and that shaped us.