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.
The Baby Doll Ladies. Courtesy: Jaz
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.
The best, most brutal thing about Spike Lee’s If God Is Willing and Da Creek Don’t Rise is how it flows, showing us not just how the various residents and systems in New Orleans are connected, but how the breakdown of help for it and the state of Louisiana in the wake of both Hurricane Katrina and the BP oil spill has infected the community on a variety of levels.
To do this, Lee brings back many of the residents viewers met in his last foray to the Crescent City, When The Levees Broke; Phyllis Montana-Leblanc (who also appears in Treme) opens the film with the eponymous poem seen above. From there, Lee veers into what might have been used as a “happy ending” for another film: a look at the local celebration of the New Orlean Saints’ Super Bowl win. From there, the bloom off the rose starts falling, and the reality of the situation is brought home by local activist M. Endesha Jukali: “After the Superbowl on that Sunday,” he tells us. “I was gonna have to get up and figure out how I was gonna eat the next morning, how I was gonna pay my bills, how I was gonna be able to survive. I’m not a who dat. I’m a who is that?”
Stiffer stipulations attached to each sentence Budget cutbacks but increased police presence And even if you get out of prison still livin join the other five million under state supervision This is business, no faces just lines and statistics from your phone, your zip code, to S-S-I digits The system break man child and women into figures Two columns for who is, and who ain’t niggaz Numbers is hardly real and they never have feelings but you push too hard, even numbers got limits Why did one straw break the camel’s back? Here’s the secret: the million other straws underneath it – it’s all mathematics
Near the beginning of the episode, Davis is in lock up after being harassed by the National Guard. Still, he yelled “Go the fuck back to Fallujah!” and got put in lock up as Toni tries to calm him down. Her grim reminder that the police and the guard are on edge serves as foreshadowing for later events – it is worthwhile to note that Davis is still more or less in one piece after the altercation.
Later on, Antoine is not so fortunate. After singing on the street with Annie and Sonny after his gig at the strip club, he drunkenly stumbles into a police car. The police react swiftly and brutally, kicking Antoine’s horn and punching him in the face. Horrified, Annie and Sonny look on, but cannot protest much for fear of retribution. The SMO squad is especially effective in this portrayal: at this point in the series, a police car in the background of a shot provides a sense of fear and foreboding. None of the characters as of yet have had a positive interaction with the police, which mimics the dynamics in a lot of communities of color – instead of a welcome sight, police presence means something horrible is about to happen -not crime prevention.
The concept of state violence extends further throughout the episode – Ladonna’s struggle to locate her brother within the criminal justice system, and being stymied at every turn also demonstrates the pernicious nature of state control over incarcerated citizens. Law enforcement appears to be unconcerned with who they have in custody and why – only that a prisoner is accounted for.
It’s understood that the police are under pressure – but what about the other citizens? Continue reading →
Last night, the first episode of Treme premiered on HBO.
I’ve already weighed in over at the Atlanticwith my thoughts. Here’s a quick excerpt:
Watching the first two episodes of Treme, the meandering focus of the pilot quietly overshadows the revolutionary nature of the show. David Simon, David Mills, and Eric Overmeyer created a television drama showing working class and racial narratives that dare to reveal the perspectives of those involved. Known for breaking racial casting norms on television, The Wire introduced a cast of color to the overwhlemingly white ranks of a mainstream cable. The SMO squad recreated this dynamic again within Treme, placing the lives of affluent professors and investigators alongside musicians and bartenders, all making their way through the post-storm landscape.
As a viewer, Treme has the same feel as the critically acclaimed 90s comedy Roc, or August Wilson’s stage play Jitney–these works reveal the reality of African American lives, but are conducted with a measure of dignity, something that is hard to come by. One of Treme’s lead characters is named Ladonna, a Pam Grier type who is allowed to be both hard and vulnerable, shown as neighborhood enforcer, devoted daughter and sister, and loving mother, all during the same episode. These types of shows are about affirmation in a vacuum of constructed portrayals, of individually truthful narratives where people only expect to see pathology.
However, as a side bar to Racialicious readers, I watched the show with a group of other culture writers and bloggers – and their reactions were interesting to me in many ways. I’m still developing my thoughts on this, but I am wondering why there is an assumed cultural reference point for critique (most folks based theirs around the Wire, while I reached back to Roc and Jitney). I’m also suppressing the urge to randomly accost white people I see consuming media created by POC and ask them what they are getting out of it and why…not in a confrontational way, but wondering what conclusions they are drawing from the material.
But I digress.
Readers, did you tune into Treme? What were your thoughts?
Race, Culture, and Identity in a Colorstruck World