New Orleans and Mardi Gras Indian Culture

By Nikesha Elise Williams

In this post, we celebrate both Black History Month and the Mardi Gras season by presenting an excerpt from our new book Mardi Gras Indians, by Nikesha Elise Williams.

Keelian Boyd. Courtesy Matthew Hinton.

There is no one single, definitive origin story that pinpoints the beginnings of what has been extrapolated over centuries into today’s Black masking, or Mardi Gras, Indian culture. Instead, there is a multiplicity of stories that have more or less fidelity to a truth none of us were alive to know. The accuracy of these stories about what led African American men and women to mask themselves in feathers, beads, and bells a few times a year in the name of history, lineage, and legacy depends upon how wide or narrow the scope and perspective of the historian, researcher, biographer, or journalist telling the tale. It also depends upon which Indian from which tribe you’re speaking with and what version of the story they were told that starts many generations before the oft-quoted 1886.

What is undeniable, however, is that New Orleans Black masking Indian culture is as African as it is Indigenous, as French as it is Spanish, and as American as are many other African American art forms that combine the sacred and secular, the spiritual and profane, the rebellious and resilient, and the tragedy, struggle, and protest of a people with its triumph, rejoicing, and jubilee. In short, New Orleans Mardi Gras Indian culture is an exemplary illustration of the American motto E pluribus unum. Out of many, one. . . .

The intertwining of Indigenous, African, European, Catholic, and African Traditional Religions that became African American culture as we know it today is a kismetic, predestined fatalism, keeping America from being the pure frontier of the WASP and thus producing the most celebrated American cultural feats: food, music, dancing, and language. These are unique cultural products that can all be seen in one of the country’s greatest cities, New Orleans, and its secretive subset of Carnival culture, the Black masking Indians.

New Orleans Mardi Gras Indian culture was born out of necessity. It was birthed through the grit and determination of our ancestors on this continent, who realized that they were being colonized even while some of their own were complicit in that colonization through Christianity, in general, and Catholicism specifically.

Also, it is important to distinguish and delineate Mardi Gras Indian culture that is specific, endemic, and inherent to New Orleans. . . . In this respect, New Orleans is not so much a southern city in the United States as it is “the northern periphery of a cultural field that had its center in South America,” as Jeroen Dewulf states in From the Kingdom of Kongo to Congo Square. Having this wider worldview gives richer context to the seeming anomaly of New Orleans culture in comparison to the modest WASPy ways of the rest of the country, perhaps save for the Gullah Geechee in the South Carolina lowcountry. From jazz funerals, neighborhood second-line parades, and an active roster of social aid and pleasure clubs to Black masking Indians, these specific attributes of Black culture in New Orleans “are not a uniquely Louisianian product,” as Dewulf says. “Rather, they represent a specific variant of a much broader phenomenon that has been observed in many other parts of the Americas.”

Nikesha Elise Williams is an award-winning author and the producer and host of the Black & Published podcast. She has received two Suncoast Regional Emmy awards for her work as a news producer. Williams is currently a freelance writer for the Washington Post, Essence, and Vox, among other publications. She lives in Jacksonville, Florida, with her family.

Available Now

Mardi Gras Indians explores how sacred and secular expressions of Carnival throughout the African diaspora came together in a gumbo-sized melting pot to birth one of the most unique traditions celebrating African culture, Indigenous peoples, and Black Americans. Williams ties together the fragments of the ancient traditions with the expressed experiences of the contemporary. From the sangamentos of the Kongolese and the calumets of the various tribes of the lower Mississippi River valley to one-on-one interviews with today’s Black masking tribe members, this book highlights the spirit of resistance and rebellion upon which this culture was built.

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