By Guest Contributor Jaz
New Orleans and Mardi Gras has fascinated me since my first trip to the Crescent City for Mardi Gras in 2008. While many people associate beads, booze, balconies and Bourbon Street with it, some local friends (thankfully!) exposed me to a rich tradition and history, particularly in the African-American community, that has nothing to do with “showing tits” for plastic trinkets.
When I returned to New York after that trip, I learned a bit about the sassy Baby Dolls in the documentary, All On A Mardi Gras Day, about black Mardi Gras, but I never found too much else. Fast forward to September, 2011: I heard Millisia White, founderof the New Orleans Society of Dance, on the New Orleans local radio station WWOZ (I listen online) discuss their upcoming 2012 Baby Dolls Centennial. They were looking for “women of excellence” to mask with them for Mardi Gras and join them throughout the year. I reached out to Millisia…and Chicava HoneyChild and I were chosen! We represented our own sassy troupe of women of color, Brown Girls Burlesque.
Though I’ve watched the parade before (and jumped for coconuts), being a part of this historic tradition was pure magic. I was out of breath and my feet hurt from walking almost 3 miles (and on 2 hours of sleep, no less), but the excitement of the people–especially the children–fueled me. And I knew I had to come back and share the herstory and present of the Baby Dolls to show a different side of Mardi Gras. There’s more than the debauchery that’s highlighted on TV–there’s a powerful history, especially of the Black women who are Mardi Gras legends.
I interviewed Millisia White, founder of the New Orleans Society of Dance (she can move!) and Dr. Kim Vaz, Associate Dean of Arts and Science at Xavier University, who is the community advisor and guest curator of the upcoming Baby Doll Ladies Centennial exhibition.
Who are the Baby Doll Ladies? How were they founded?
Millisia White: More than anything else, “Baby Doll Ladies” are the beautiful women who inspire the joy of life in the hearts of the people through dance.
The New Orleans Society of Dance (NOSD) was established March, 2005. Post Hurricane Katrina (August ’05), the NOSD has poured its time into a deeply personal mission coined the “New Orleans’ Resurrection,” which is in part about continuing the living history of our endearing Mardi Gras legacy of pageantry referred to as “Baby Dolls.” As it is noted, the most popular family group of Baby Dolls were members of the Golden Slipper Social Club and their Dirty Dozen Kazoo Band circa 1930, led by the late Alma Trepaignier-Batiste around 1930-1980. Alma’s family/descendants would parade on Mardi Gras day dancing and singing ribald songs, looking like the toys that continue to be so precious to children. I was deeply honored when “Uncle Lionel” Batiste and Ms. Miriam Batiste-Reed, son and daughter of the late Alma Trepaignier-Batiste, gave me handmade novelty bonnets for me as an heirloom. This priceless gesture of love and appreciation was also consecrated by a sister and brother, both now in their eighties, who dedicated their time, talents, and untold stories to the resurrection of our Baby Doll Ladies, the new generation keeper of the “Baby Dolls” birthright.
What is the significance of Mardi Gras in the African-American community? What is masking about? I read about the connection between the Skeletons (Skull and Bone gangs) and Baby Dolls as symbolizing death and rebirth. Can you explain further?
Dr. Kim Vaz: African Americans have been participating in Mardi Gras from early on. It gave black people another opportunity to draw on their African heritage of singing, having processions, and dressing in costumes. Their background mixed with the fun and festive air of the French-inspired Mardi Gras created a time-out from the toils and drudgery of their work and the realities of their political condition. For those who could get away from the White people they worked for on Mardi Gras, it provided a special opportunity to have fun with friends and family. Before integration, Mardi Gras was an event that was local to specific neighborhoods for African Americans. Claiborne Avenue, with its swath of oak trees and large “neutral grounds” and which was a hub of black shopping and business, served as a gathering place where blacks dressed in hand- made “Indian” costumes. Members of the Skeletons, the Baby Dolls, the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club, and many other marching clubs and maskers could thrill the crowds. Black people called Mardi Gras “Old Fools Day” in recognition of the ability to let go of cares and worries.
The Baby Dolls themselves never gave a thought to the symbolism of birth and death. This is an imposed idea that makes sense when we think about the inherent meaning of dressing like a doll and dressing like skeletons. But the Baby Dolls in the beginning up through the mid-twentieth century saw themselves as sex symbols, entertainers, and people out to have a good time.
What is and has been the role of Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs?
KV: Social aid and pleasure clubs have served African American people [in] New Orleans since their inception after Reconstruction. Segregation controlled all aspects of Black people’s lives. Discriminatory laws and social practices prevented African Americans from earning a good living wage and from having access to health care and to education. In addition, all social facilities and clubs were segregated, and African Americans had to develop their own entertainment. The social aid and pleasure clubs filled in the gaps. These clubs were usually small in number, and members paid regular dues. From this money, when members were in financial need or had a medical emergency or death, the club contributed money to help cover expenses. The clubs also held social events such as dances and an annual second line parade, where members would dress in similar colorful costumes and turn the public street into their stage for their own delight and to delight their neighbors.
How did the Baby Doll Ladies fit into this?
MW: Although we are a dance production company, we have recently extended our membership to include honorary Baby Doll Ladies of Excellence, with the purpose of serving as cultural goodwill ambassadors. In commemoration of the Baby Doll Ladies’ centennial anniversary, this past Mardi Gras season (February 21, 2012) the New Orleans Society of Dance held its first formal recruitment of Honorary Baby Doll Ladies of Excellence from the Greater New Orleans area and beyond. In homage to the past, present and future generations of women behind the Baby Doll (Lady) mask. These selected women are comprised of fellow artists, entrepreneurs, business professionals, and educators. The centennial celebration kicked off with the Women of Excellence Luncheon on January 28 at Dickie Brennan’s Palace Café. The event honored trailblazers in the community that are making a difference—women quite like those who masked years ago.
Can you speak about what the Baby Doll Ladies have done in the community, past and present?
KV: By incorporating a teaching mission within a song and dance, creative-movement workshop NOSD is now sharing this 100-year-old legacy with our inner-city school youth. By serving as an example of hope we are bringing happiness and affirmation to the community at large. As a cabaret-style act, Millisia White’s New Orleans Baby
Doll Ladies perform and inform the world’s viewers of the smart and sassy attitude of excellence that is synonymous with New Orleans’ women of the jazz, then and now. These are both ways in which the “Baby Dolls” tradition and mission has never been shared before…
As community advisor of the exhibition “They Call Me Baby Doll,” (sanctioned at The Presbytere, LA State Museum for January 13, 2013) the NOSD, along with myself as guest curator and Louisiana State Museum curators, are providing much-belated recognition and awareness to the historic significance, preservation, and resurgence of 100 years of the “Baby Dolls” masking, music, and dance traditions of Louisiana, which is also a part of our American pop culture.
How were the Baby Doll Ladies as a community affected by Hurricane Katrina? What has been the significance of rebuilding the Baby Doll legacy since the storm?
MW: The Baby Doll tradition disappeared sometime around the construction of the I-10 overpass on Claiborne Avenue during the 1960s, which decimated the region that had birthed the Dolls. Ironically though, it was another tragedy that led to the resurrection of the Baby Dolls. However, the need became even more pressing after Hurricane Katrina. Now (our culture) was threatened to be endangered forever. We needed to be an example–and not just talk about it, we needed to show up. We had already formed the New Orleans Society of Dance before Katrina, but the storm forced us to look at our priorities in a new light.
I think with every crisis, natural catastrophe, or whatever, you get a sense of threat of what you know being lost, being gone. It’s scary. It’s inspiring. That’s your motivation. When Katrina hit, my brother DJ Hektik was like, “‘What do you want to resurrect?” Dance. What’s synonymous with female dance in New Orleans? Baby Dolls. It is even moreso a warranted platform that we always looked for to showcase the plethora of artistic/creative talent in the Crescent City.
The Baby Doll Ladies just celebrated their centennial this year and there were three generations of Baby Dolls represented when we masked together. What does maintaining this tradition mean to you 100 years later?
MW: We are carrying the torch of our ancestral traditions, a responsibility that our Baby Doll Ladies don’t take lightly. As inheritor, our mission is to continue the preservation and further cultivation of the Baby Dolls’ message of pride, unity, and empowerment.
How do you see the role of the Baby Dolls evolving with all of the social and political changes African-American women are experiencing?
MW: In order to understand the woman they call “Baby Doll,” one must first understand the origin and culture from which she came. Racial discrimination, sure, but also on a gender basis, social, economic and cultural basis–there have always been threats to Louisiana’s Black-Creole heritage.
Not really much of a transient place, even though we [are] a port city, there are still families with roots to Louisiana since its colonization around 1718. The Black-Creole descendants of the first French-speaking African families that settled along the river parishes have constantly endured catastrophic loss of life and property (i.e. yellow fever, harsh climate, disease, hurricanes, [and] floods). That’s a lot for generations thereafter to have to spring [sic] from. Yet, the women of our heritage always served as the (village) missionaries, keeper of the estate, bearer of the family bloodline, and motivator of the community. She didn’t put all of the weight of her strife on the world, and many
of these women worked their way to keep their families/tribes in tact. These were intelligent women with the attitude that being in bondage is mostly a way of thinking of the oppressed mindset, being that other ethnic groups here had the same kinds of struggles blacks faced in the middle of all swamp terrain. The black women earned their own way in society by cutting cane and finding a way to make deals with the men (Indian, French, etc.), and eventually inherited dowries, land, and even their own businesses. As these women migrated into the city, the same inspired females of excellence merely used Mardi Gras as the day to garner more business while exemplifying womanhood
and dancing to their highest level of freedom.
You see, adversity and change is not new to the families of black women here…it really is all about the joy of life! The Baby Ladies of today are a continuation of that same attitude and spirit of excellence.
Jaz is a social media professional, a dancer with Brown Girls Burlesque, and an ongoing student and advocate of reproductive justice. As the owner of Swirl Public Relations, she advises social justice organizations and non-profits on using social media for advocacy and communications strategy. She also created a blog and collective called Goddesses Rising, to provide an open space for women to discuss health, art, politics, social issues, and spirituality.