Friday, April 20, 2018

Claiming Identity—The Mardi Gras Indians

I can tell there will be echoes from this New Orleans trip for days (weeks, years?) to come.
Today I got to thinking about the Mardi Gras Indians and the fact that it’s an all-black tradition not open to whites, Asians, Latinos, etc. In today’s world, that could be felt as exclusive, discriminatory, racist and so on. So it requires a little reflection.

There are many, many reasons why the exclusive Mardi Gras Indian tradition is different from the country club that excludes Jews and blacks, is different from the redlined neighborhood, is different from anything that could be called “black supremacy.”

White supremacy is based on the arrogance that one group can have the power to define another group. The purpose of this abomination began, in my reading of the matter, from an economic base, creating a mythology to justify an oppressive system that served the economic needs of one group. Free labor? For a few centuries? Hey, good deal! Now we only have to create a foundation and scaffolding for this and look, the priests, scientists, politicians are more than willing to help! Come up with their theories of racial superiority and their surety that God decreed that one Master race was destined to rule over and take care of in their own weird way, claiming that the unfortunate inferior children are better off in the plantation than in the jungle (which actually barely exists in West Africa). Voila! We did it! And now we can boast about America being the great superpower because we built on a few hundred years of free labor! Aren’t we special? And yes, the black folks can raise our children and carry our suitcases and clean our rooms and serve our meals (while we paint them as lazy and shiftless) and entertain us with music and dance even when official slavery is over and we’ll keep up the free labor by putting them in prisons because God wants it that way and Science confirms that this is their rightful place and Right Wing Talk Radio keeps the lie going and fools the poor whites who would benefit from an alliance. And if something happens to contradict that—if there’s a crack in the carefully constructed edifice of racism because some people are noticing the courage of a Harriet Tubman or Rosa Parks, the brilliant minds of a Frederick Douglas or W.E. Dubois or Cornel West, the kinesthetic brilliance of Jack Johnson to Jesse Owens to Wilma Rudolph to Steph Curry, the musical intelligence of Louis Armstrong to Josh Redman and Esperanza Spalding, the moral mountain of Martin Luther King, we’ll find a way to conveniently not notice it. And at least we have math, golf and modern art to …oops! Damn that movie Hidden Figures and Tiger Woods and quilters of Gee’s Bend and Thornton Dial.

So back to the black Indians. Their identity is not based on the racial inferiority of whites, is not built on raising themselves up by putting others down, is not based on the refusal to acknowledge that they could get to know and be friends with someone of a different skin color. It’s about claiming a tradition that came from their solidarity with Native Americans who welcome escaped slaves, allowed for some intermarriage and assisted in survival in a brutal situation. It is passed down within a family like royalty of old and as such, not a club that anyone can join. But the exclusion is like an affinity group more than the country club, a rare place where an oppressed group can claim their own identity without being defined by others and without feeling the need to define others.

I remember visiting a Hopi Village years back and witnessing a ritual that had to do with snakes. It was right up my alley in terms of my fascination with music, dance, drama, ritual, culture and healing and I asked if white folks could ever study this tradition. The answer was immediate and clear. “No, this is for us.” But then the beautiful second sentence. “But I want you to know that we do this ceremony on behalf of healing all people in the world.”

So this white boy cannot presume to become a member of the tribe and that is correct. But I can dance in the second line and if I play a mean enough trombone, I might be welcomed into the brass band that joins the parade. In short, whatever level of racial harmony New Orleans has achieved (and I’m not being naïve here about some fantasy land where all is fine—the nefarious claws of centuries of racism still are digging into the culture here like everywhere) comes from a mixture of exclusivity and inclusivity and knowing where and when each is appropriate. At the beautiful Community Sing I attended led this one time from Ysaye Barnwell, they announced two sings a month—one for everyone and one for people of color. That felt right.

Yes, the lessons of New Orleans continue to echo. That such a place can be in the United States is an extraordinary blessing. May it continue and evolve!

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