Last Tuesday, we celebrated Mardi Gras here in South Louisiana, and as usual, the beads flew, the King Cake appeared, and the revelry commenced. Each year, as we party before the beginning of the Easter season, I think back to a class I had during my PhD coursework. The class was on folklore and the carnivalesque in literature. We read Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer (1961) to explore the ideas of the carnivalesque in literary works. Another excellent text that would work for this study would be John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces (1980).
Today, though, I want to focus on a chapter from Robert H. deCoy’s The Nigger Bible (1967)
. Published by Holloway House, the same publisher who put out Iceberg Slim’s
and Donald Goines’s
novels, deCoy’s book, according to Dick Gregory’s
preface, seeks to “reject the academic forms of Anglo-Saxon writings in order to establish newer forms and presentations eliminating the pure white ‘bullshit’ which has for so long shackled the spirits and minds of nearly all black people here in America and even throughout the modern world” (13). Through the book, deCoy sought to attach the semiotic meaning of the word “nigger” and to dismantle it in ways that David Walker did before him.
While deCoy’s overall goal with the book is worthy of study, I want to focus on one particular chapter: “The Mardi Gras!” In this chapter, deCoy presents his congregation with a brief discussion of the festival’s history and a brief geography of New Orleans before he traces the path of King Zulu and his parade down Canal Street and beyond
. deCoy’s description highlights the inversions that occur during the Mardi Gras season, but he also shows that no matter what types of reversals occur African Americans will still experience racism and oppression during a celebration that purposefully manipulates hierarchical roles and positions. The white hegemonic power, and the African American middle class, will not allow for any type of subversion that they do not, in some way, approve of or that they can control.
Before talking about “The Mardi Gras!”, I want to take a moment to provide a brief definition of the carnivalesque from Mikhail Bakhtin
. Bakhtin, in Rabelais and His World
, writes about the grotesque and the carnivalesque in Rabelais’s Pantagruel
. Contrasting the carnival with the Medieval feast, Bakhtin describes the carnival as an event that “celebrated temporary liberation from the prevailing truth and from the established order; it marked the suspension of hierarchical rank, privileges, norms, and prohibitions” (45). In essence, carnival, of which Mardi Gras is a part, celebrates inversion. It provides a liminal space where the social norms and structures become reversed and where prohibitions slip away.
deCoy describes images of inversion and prohibitions fading away as he describes the streets of New Orleans during Mardi Gras. He presents readers with the image of a grown man who dresses as a woman with a pillow for his bosom and a pillow for his buttock. The “woman” pushes a stroller through the streets, and the stroller contains another grown man in only a diaper. Periodically, the “baby” raises a class of alcohol and sips it. Another reveler pushes a coffin down the street. Periodically, a man rises out of the coffin and takes a swig of whiskey. All of this occurs while scantily clad women walk the streets showing enough skin to make even the most veteran reveler blush red. On Wednesday, these people will return to their jobs and normal lives, restoring everything to its rightful order.
The idea of inversion enters deCoy’s description of the Zulu Parade almost immediately when he describes the geographical areas of New Orleans for his readers. Rather than using the navigational terms north, south, east, and west to denote direction, citizens use the terms “uptown,” “downtown,” fronta’ town,” “backa’ town.” One would assume, based on the terms, that “uptown” would connote a northerly direction towards Lake Pontchartrain; however, that is not the case. “Uptown” resides to the southwest of “downtown,” thus inverting the preconceived thoughts surrounding directions and their navigational meanings. “Fronta’ town,” of course, relates to the area closest to the Mississippi River where boats would unload their cargo, and “backa’ town” refers to the area towards the west, heading towards Lake Pontchartrain. In fact, Congo Square, the place where slave gathered on their “day off” was once considered “backa’ town.” It sits on the edge of the French Quarter.
Through presenting a detailed description of the navigational aspects of New Orleans, deCoy is establishing the idea of inversion and carnival from the beginning of his anecdote. During the Mardi Gras, and particularly the Zulu Parade, “[t]he people of all races mix and blend in the frolic, the fun, sex, sadness and the laughter. Or at least some of them try hard to, ‘when nobody else is looking'” (deCoy 230). However, someone is always watching, making sure that even during a time of revelry that seeks to upend the social structure and provide a sort of safety valve that the races do not mix in any way that would be deemed unsavory to those in power. As he describes King Zulu’s entrance and parade through the city, deCoy emphasizes this control that remains over the city.
At one point on the route, a man in the crowd shouts to one of the marchers: “Hey, Tom! Tom, boy! I know you, you Black bastid. Thought I wouldn’t recognize you, huh, boy?” The man in the crowd is Tom’s boss, and Tom, as he turns, “assumes the smile of the clown, as he moves toward the ‘paddy’ and his laughing wife” (239). Even when he has a role of power, at least on this day, Tom acquiesces to his boss. He doesn’t confront his boss in any way; instead, he smiles and puts on the mask because “tomorrow, when Mardi Gras Day is over and done with,” the man will reacquire his role as boss over Tom.
All of the marchers do not maintain a place of servitude when marching in the parade. In fact, the Parade Grand Marshall treats the white policemen who accompany the floats with insolence. He yells for someone to “[t]ell them damn White laws that we’re ready to roll!” (240). deCoy extrapolates on this and describes the Grand Marshall as existing within an inversion on Mardi Gras. deCoy writes, “Today he treats them with insolence because they are being paid extra, as ‘escorts’ with his Zulu Parade. On tomorrow, out of fear and meekness,, ‘them White laws’ will have become ‘Mister’ again and treated with much, much respect and acknowledgement” (240). Through this description, deCoy makes it a point that we realize that things will go back to normal after the celebration, and the Alabaster policemen who take the barbs of the Grand Marshall and laugh will not be so kind if he decides to act the same way at any other time of the year.
Later, a group of “li’l foxy ‘fay’ chicks” start to grind and bump in the parade route, and some of the girls reach out and try “to encourage [the African American paraders] to dance with [them]” (245). They pull the men, kiss them, and gyrate against them; but the powers that be refuse to accept such race mixing, especially amongst the white upper class teenage girls and the lower class of African American marchers. So, a cop appears through the crowd, quickly running up to the group. “With his club,” deCoy writes, “he slaps one of the Ebony youngsters broadside the face” (246). This causes the others to release their partners and vanish into the crowd. Other police officers appear and beat the man senseless, even framing him for pulling a knife on them. deCoy says we cannot remain with this scene because the parade doesn’t stop, it continues its lumbering trek towards the “backa’ town.” The police will throw the “boy” in jail, and the “Alabaster girls” will go free, no harm no foul for them.
These are just a couple of examples from deCoy’s chapter. He talks about the fact that some of the party goers despise the Zulu Parade and how the marchers are, in essence, wearing a mask of misntrilsy, playing up to the expectations of their predominately white audience. He does provide a view of class distinctions as well when the final scene occurs before a group of middle class African Americans that pay “homage” to the parade of “Common-Bred Outcasts” on Mardi Gras while “later they might exploit them, for their own single and collective selfish advantages” (250). These are topics that I do not have time to discuss today. What are your thoughts and observations? Let me know, as usual, in the comments below.
Bakhtin, Mikhail. “Rabelais and His World.” Literary Theory: An Anthology. Eds. Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1998. 45-51.
deCoy, Robert H. The Nigger Bible. Los Angeles: Holloway House, 1967.