We Mobilians like to see ourselves as being different from other Alabamians. When we look for kinship, we often look west rather than north. The Big Easy, or New Orleans — which lies 140 miles to our west — is the city we claim as our bigger “sister city.” New Orleans got nicknamed the Big Easy some time ago, a reference to the easygoing, gentle and slow way of life pervasive in the city. New York City was the Big Apple, so New Orleans became the Big Easy.
Seeing ourselves as a “Little Easy,” we claim sisterhood with New Orleans not just because of our shared history or heritage, but also because, from architecture to cuisine to our easygoing way of life, we Mobilians have more in common with our Creole cousins down in the bayous of Southern Louisiana than we do with most other residents of the Yellowhammer State.
We love to point out that Mobile’s history has not been dominated by the racial ugliness and hatred that is so infamously associated with other Alabama cities.
There is particularly one time of the year we love to highlight the distinctive history, culture and cosmopolitan feel of our Little Easy, and that is the season of Carnival or Mardi Gras. It’s a time that truly sets Mobile apart from other Alabama locales. We’ve even developed a pretty cool official marketing strategy around it: Visit Mobile, the city that’s “Born to Celebrate!”
Mardi Gras becomes a celebration of many things in Mobile, but most importantly it is a celebration by, and of, community. The last day of Mobile’s Mardi Gras, Fat Tuesday, turns into one big community party with fun, laughter and the smell of mouthwatering barbeque grills permeating downtown streets.
For all the good times Fat Tuesday brings, unfortunately that spirit of collective community fun and merriment takes a dark turn when the Comic Cowboys take to the streets. For the sake of not offending its viewers, local television stations broadcasting the day’s festivities make quick decisions about what signs to air, and not air. On-air media personalities forgo commenting, and in some cases are left speechless by some of the messages displayed on the signs they see. Throughout the crowds, particularly where races are mixed together, there is a palpable awkwardness and, at times, tension. In other places on the parade route there is outright anger. The city that is “Born to Celebrate” becomes, as the Comic Cowboys make their way through downtown streets, a city that seems destined to be divided. The idyllic Little Easy becomes noticeably uneasy.
It shouldn’t be this way. The Comic Cowboys’ motto is “Without Malice.” However, “Without Taste” is becoming a more accurate description. And increasingly, as well as rightly, many Mobilians are demanding that “Without Anonymity” be an added mantra.
It is quite commendable that the organization has stated it will make efforts to better police itself. In a letter to Councilman Fred Richardson, the organization noted, “Please rest assured, in the future we will cease from comments which may be hurtful to our citizens. Our members respect the Mardi Gras viewers and our future parades will take everyone’s feelings into consideration.”
However, it’s very unfortunate it took a great deal of negative publicity and scrutiny for the organization to own up to the harm and division it was causing on a holiday that, in its intent and purpose, is far removed from such negativity. In our society, there are no limits placed on free speech, but there should be some measure of accountability and responsibility for one’s speech. It’s time for the Comic Cowboys to take responsibility, and be held accountable, for the messages it puts out. If one writes it or draws it, one should own it. One shouldn’t hide behind a mask or the First Amendment.
This issue is not going away. The Comic Cowboys is a parading society whose “comedy” has increasingly been out of step with a city that is trying to market itself as the family-friendly version of the Big Easy. It is becoming out of place in a community that is making real efforts to be more inclusive and promoting respect for its citizens regardless of race and socioeconomic background. That’s not to say there is no place for humor or satire — there is. But there is a big difference between true satire and downright mean-spiritedness or cruelness that wounds its target and offends the sensibilities of the community at large.
To a great extent Fat Tuesday is a day of selling and advancing the Mobile brand. It’s a day of giving reasons why visitors should want to return to the city that is “Born to Celebrate!” That brand is seriously undermined when there is a parading society that instead of channeling the spirit of lightheartedness, fun, inclusion and easygoingness the day represents, channels a spirit and image the state as a whole has had a hard time shaking off: one of backwardness, hatefulness and insensitivity. The latter is something that should make all Mobilians uneasy and propel us to work toward ensuring that no group is able to misrepresent us in such a fashion.