St. Joseph's Day
Today's guest blogger is Erik Schwarz, founder of Interfaith Works, a nonprofit based in New Orleans, Louisiana, that partners with a wide range of faith communities and other organizations around innovative social-change projects. He also co-directs The Institute for Faith and Service, based in Washington DC.
Tomorrow is St. Joseph's Day. I had never heard of it, although the cult of saints has long been a preoccupation of mine, until I began living in New Orleans. Nowhere else in America is this day so culturally and spiritually central, not only to the Roman Catholics who inaugurated its observance but also to indigenous African-American groups who amplify its meaning beyond the original Christian context and connect it to West African religious traditions. St. Joseph's Day is the occasion, but this piece is really about the indigenous cultures of New Orleans, the meaning of Carnival and the resurrection of the city.
The celebration of the day was brought to New Orleans in the 19th century by Sicilian immigrants. San Giuseppe, or St. Joseph, is a patron saint of Sicily, and his intervention is believed to have saved that island from a legendary drought and famine. In Catholic churches around the city, as well as in some homes, special altars are built and then heaped with candles, wine, breads, cakes and other traditional foods like the Sicilian pastry zeppole. The altars are treated like stars: their pictures are taken and run in papers and magazines. Parades amp up the celebration. Coming in the midst of Lent, a season of renunciation, St. Joseph's Day feels like a brief return to Mardi Gras. And in fact the two days are tightly connected, especially in the culture of black Carnival.
Among the various indigenous African-American groups of New Orleans, it is the Mardi Gras Indians to whom St. Joseph's Day matters most. The Indians are organized into dozens of tribes, colloquially known as "gangs," with evocative names like Yellow Pocahontas, Wild Tchoupitoulas and White Cloud Hunters. Every year each Indian sews a new suit, a towering costume constructed from thousands of beads, feathers, stones and sequins, and unveils it on Mardi Gras Day, parading with his gang. Traditionally, the suit is seen for the last time when the Indians parade again on St. Joseph's Day or the most proximate Sunday, called "Super Sunday." There are accounts of suits being ritually sacrificed, with headdresses or other components being installed on altars in Blackhawk or other African-diasporic churches.
To those unfamiliar with New Orleans, all of the above must seem strange and its meanings remote. The key is to understand the significance of Carnival here. Like Rio de Janeiro and Trinidad, New Orleans is culturally and socially organized around Mardi Gras, or Carnival. In Uptown white society, men define themselves socially by the krewes or Mardi Gras organizations to which they belong. Women make their debut at balls during the Carnival season, which lasts from Twelfth Night (after Christmas) until Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent. The referents here are European, but it may be in black and Creole New Orleans, where African referents predominate, that Carnival achieves its most classic expression, even by European cultural standards.
Mikhail Bakhtin, the Russian philologist and critic who plumbed Rabelais, defines the carnivalesque mode as the suspension of ordinary time and ordinary rules via humor and chaos, the inversion of hierarchies, and the bursting forth of polyphony - of many voices. It collapses the proscenium between performer and audience and raises up participatory art. In African-American and Creole New Orleans, Carnival culture is produced by an interlocking set of groups, including the Skeletons or Bone Gangs, whose counterparts can be seen throughout the Caribbean, the Baby Dolls, the brass bands and the social aid and pleasure clubs, like Zulu. They spoof and critique the rich and powerful as well as each other. Their parades follow unpredictable and seemingly chaotic routes, driving the police to distraction. And they sweep up passersby and pedestrians into participation in their dancing and music-making.
All of the groups that make black Carnival have deep histories here as well as roots and retentions extending back to West Africa - none more so than the Mardi Gras Indians. No one can say when black men first masked as Indians, but the appearance of Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show in New Orleans in 1885 was a cultural accelerant. The oldest extant gang is called Creole Wild West, and it dates to that era. The Indians were largely working-class black men: the term "gang" may be a reference to work gangs from the local docks. And they were rough, with a reputation for violent turf battles. Some contemporary Indians and scholars contend that the violence was more mythic than real, and this may be so, but the Indians were nonetheless objects of both fear and fascination. Until very recently, their parading was monitored and sometimes disrupted by the police.
The Indians possess an enormous mystique for being wild and also for being pretty, in their astounding suits of beads, stones and feathers. Their distinctive music has become world-famous, with mainstream acts from the Grateful Dead to the Talking Heads using Indian chants like "Iko Iko" in their repertoires. The costumes and the chants, which incorporate an early Creole lexicon, both point back to the first days of colonial New Orleans, when slaves and Native Americans formed an ad hoc alliance. Some of the Mardi Gras Indians can trace ancestry to this alliance. In the excellent documentary "Tootie's Last Suit", Tootie Montana, a famous chief of the Yellow Pocahontas, displays old photographs of his mixed Native-American and Creole forebears.
Contemporary Indians, however, tend to articulate their relationship to the spirit world of West Africa. There are many points of connection. I am struck by how closely the beadwork, the rhythms, and the body language of the Indians resemble those of the sacred Yoruba masquerade called Egungun. Egungun is organized by male societies, rather like New Orleans's krewes, and their point of view is that of the traditional Yoruba power elite. The subtext of the masquerade is the sacralizing of boundaries and honoring of ancestral hierarchies. Socially, it functions more like Uptown white society's balls and parades than Mardi Gras Indian masking and parading, which critiques and transgresses geographic and social boundaries. The liberating challenge of the Indian catchphrase "Do what you wanna" is an almost perfect inversion of the Yoruba message about doing what is expected of you.
The relationship of the Mardi Gras Indians to the spirit world of West Africa is not simple, but it is powerful. My nonprofit organization, Interfaith Works, has been in conversation with Mardi Gras Indians for several years now. We have come to realize that although they are usually contextualized by outsiders in terms of arts, music, culture and politics, the Indians understand themselves to be essentially a spiritual community. Like so many other communities of faith, the Indians are not only maintaining a rich ritual life but also doing service and playing key roles in the resurrection of New Orleans and its civic life.
Bertrand Butler, who chairs a leadership coalition called the New Orleans Mardi Gras Indian Council, provides community leadership for the restoration of parks and public spaces. Also, along with Christian, Muslim and Jewish leaders, Bertrand is one of the planners of Martin Luther King Jr. Day. MLK Day has great resonance in this city, where Dr. King was elected to the leadership of Southern Christian Leadership Conference and is personally remembered by many clergy and other New Orleanians. Bertrand and his fellow leaders bring together leading service organizations like HandsOn New Orleans and City Year Louisiana along with school, youth and community groups and thousands of participants for commemoration, service-learning, and recovery work.
Cherice Harrison-Nelson and her mother, Herreast Harrison, direct respectively the Mardi Gras Indian Hall of Fame and the Guardians Institute, an education nonprofit formed out of the gang Guardians of the Flame. Cherice is an Indian and a Fulbright Scholar who has been an educator in both elementary schools and universities. Herreast is a retired teacher and a deep thinker in her own right. Among their many good works is a highly successful drive for children's literacy - especially critical because Hurricane Katrina obliterated school libraries and personal collections. Drawing on a network of partners that includes First Book, the national children's book charity, Cherice and Herreast have distributed well over 10,000 gift books to kids here.
Cherice and Herreast bring Mardi Gras Indians to schools throughout the city, and they are sometimes accompanied by drummers or brass bands and occasionally by a sports star or film celebrity. Kids are not only given books but are also engaged in music-making and dancing with the Indians, whose mystique is invaluable in making literacy seem cool.
This represents one of many chapters in the story of how faith, or spirit, and service are bringing people together and making positive change on the ground here in New Orleans and elsewhere.
The content of this blog reflects the views of its author and does not necessarily reflect the views of either Eboo Patel or the Interfaith Youth Core.
March 18, 2009; 4:10 PM ET
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