It’s Mardi Gras time in the Era of Outrage! Laissez les bon temps rouler as long as you don’t rouler all over someone’s feelings. Right?
The collision of #metoo and the Blackface Crisis couldn’t come at a better time, as we enjoy our annual pre-Lenten party. Mardi Gras has never been particularly “P.C.” to begin with, so the question is how does it fit in a world where Katy Perry is apologizing for putting eyes, a nose and a mouth on a pair of black shoes? Can Mardi Gras possibly survive the scrutiny of a society that sees racism and sexism practically everywhere?
Will Mobilians eventually end up throwing their Mardi Gras masks and costumes on the bonfire along with their Ryan Adams CDs, college yearbooks and $900 Gucci “blackface” sweaters? How can we hope this tradition that remains somewhat segregated by race and gender will survive the withering scrutiny of those who set modern societal norms and their hoards of internet shaming followers?
As with everything associated with our current national outrage, the fine line between what’s OK and what’s definitely never OK is set and reset on an almost hourly basis. There are some things just about everyone can agree on — like that the publisher in Linden, Alabama calling for the Ku Klux Klan to ride up to DC and lynch members of Congress is moronic and totally racist. (Not to suggest there aren’t some idiots out there who will actually agree with such a proposal.)
Likewise, showing up in your medical school yearbook dressed as either a Klansman or in minstrel show blackface should have been an easy call even way, way back in the anything-goes 1980s.
Mobile’s Mardi Gras equivalent of the career-ending college yearbook photo was the Comic Cowboys’ penchant for interspersing its annual humorous jabs at local, state and national politics with a few ridiculously racist drawings that were aimed at nothing more than making fun of African-American people and “Prichit.” It was increasingly uncomfortable to watch over and over, and things came to a head a couple of years ago. Last year’s Cowboys’ parade reined in the racism and put the emphasis back on poking fun at the powerful, which made it so much nicer to watch.
But these days the watchful eye of political correctness is also staring hard at “cultural appropriation,” even during Halloween. (Go ahead and toss those Moana outfits and Black Panther costumes on the bonfire too kids!)
Unfortunately, Mardi Gras is rife with the kinds of cultural appropriation that’s been deemed unacceptable. Every year floats full of white people are dressed up in whimsical costumes depicting characters from all over the world. For example, this year’s first paraders, Conde Cavaliers, had a theme of Carnivale Internationale, which focused on carnival in different countries. Tell me there wasn’t any cultural appropriating going on there!!!
In New Orleans, the famous Zulu Parade has run smack into the blackface scandal that briefly made Virginia the country’s laughingstock — until that goober publisher in Linden got everyone talking about us again. Zulu, which began as an all-black parading group, is now being blasted for allowing paraders to wear blackface.
Most of the white paraders who participate are guests of the black members and are told to wear blackface, along with the black paraders who do as well. The members aren’t offended by it, but the “progressives” and some members of the media are. Zulu’s leaders are fighting back, saying the black makeup worn by black and white paraders is just that — makeup — and that it has nothing to do with the racist minstrel show blackface.
It’s a nice argument, but we live in a world now where even suggesting that it was once OK to darken your skin for a Halloween costume can cost you a multi-million-dollar cable TV gig. I doubt that excuse will carry much weight outside the Big Easy.
How long can it be before our own Mardi Gras traditions must endure the same kind of scrutiny? Chief Slac — a very white guy dressed like a Native American — is more or less the very symbol of Mobile’s Mardi Gras. To outsiders who’ve never heard the story of Joe Cain adopting the character of Chief Slacabamorinico, replete with his feather duster-like headdress and long braids, this all might seem quite politically incorrect.
Joe Cain Day’s Indian-themed foot marchers, the Wild Mauvillians, would almost certainly cause a “clutch-the-pearls” moment on just about any college campus outside of Florida State. The thought of all these dudes running through the streets wearing war paint and huge headdresses is a straight up nightmare for the most “woke” among us. Let’s not forget even the Lost Boys in “Peter Pan” are considered racist by some.
It wouldn’t be surprising if the group has lost a member or two just because those people wouldn’t want to have to explain the tradition to those who live outside the Mother of the Mystics.
So what to do?
The easy answer to that is that we should just have fun and realize it’s all in the name of a good time that’s enjoyed by people of all ethnicity and fiscal strata. Of course, that doesn’t mean things can’t go too far in the name of a good time. Right Comic Cowboys?
I suppose the other answer is don’t wear Katy Perry shoes while marching and don’t ever let anyone run a photo of you in your Mardi Gras costume in a newspaper, magazine or yearbook. There’s really no telling where all of this is going to end, especially if you ever hope to hold public office.
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