Mardi Gras in African-American Traditions

Mardi Gras in African-American Traditions

Date Observed: Carnival period before Lent
(between February 3 and March 9)
Location: New Orleans, Louisiana

People of all races and backgrounds take part in Mardi Gras, which is a French term meaning "Fat Tuesday." The period before Lent is traditionally a time for feasting and merrymaking. The following day is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the Christian season of Lent - a 40-day period of fasting and spiritual preparation for Easter. The carnival period that begins two weeks before Fat Tuesday also is known generally as Mardi Gras. During this time, some festivities are based on African-American traditions, such as the Zulu parade and the appearance of Black Indians in handmade, colorful regalia.

Historical Background

Although Mobile, Alabama, claims title to the oldest Mardi Gras celebration in the United States, the New Orleans carnival is the best known, and, in fact, symbolizes the city. Festivities stem from masked balls and processions that French settlers brought with them in the 1700s. Some scholars speculate that these festivals may have roots in the spring rites of ancient Rome.

In 1857, New Orleans held its first Mardi Gras parade, presented by the Mistik Krewe of Comus, the first krewe - a private club or committee - to organize. Dozens of krewes formed later, sponsoring parades during the carnival. The krewe known as Rex (King) organized in 1872 and held a procession led by a "king" in costume followed by hundreds of people dressed as servants, clowns, saints, or devils.

The number of krewes has grown over the years, and among them are African-American groups. These private clubs organize the dinners, balls, processions, marching bands, floats, and pageants that are part of Mardi Gras and take place at different times during the carnival season.

Creation of the Observance

A black support group in New Orleans, the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club, sponsored the first African-American parade during Mardi Gras in 1901, but the group did not become known as the Zulus, or Zulu krewe, until 1909. Members of the organization based their parade themes on satire, making fun of white parade kings, similar to the slave parodies during Pinkster and Negro Election Day and Coronation Festivals in New England. The Zulu, however, organized in protest of the exclusive all-white krewes and from the beginning mocked the stereotyped portrayal of blacks by putting on exaggerated blackface of minstrel shows and grass skirts.

Black Indians known as Mardi Gras Indians make up krewes, also called gangs or tribes, that have created some of the most colorful parades in New Orleans. Their handmade regalia and music mesh Native-American and AfricanAmerican customs. Scholars speculate about the origin of this tradition but many believe that African Americans were motivated by the Plains Indians whom African Americans from New Orleans fought when they joined the Buffalo Soldiers during the late 19th century. In addition, the heritage of some Mardi Gras Indians includes both African and Indian ancestry, and they have carried on ancient rituals and warrior traditions of both peoples.

Black Indians

Many African-American families understand from oral histories and written records that their heritage may include Native-American ancestors. The two groups share a long history of efforts to escape white domination and discrimination and claim their own identities. But there have been few studies of connections between the two groups, and certainly, Black Indians have not found a place in most textbooks or been identified for their contributions. Nor have they been depicted in movies and TV shows about the western frontier and cowboys on the range (see also Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo and Black Cowboy Parade).

The heritage of Black Indians includes runaway black slaves who found refuge in Native villages and intermarried, producing offspring who helped build a nation. Undeniably, some indigenous people - known as the "Five Civilized Nations" (the Choctaw, Chickasaw, Cherokee, Creek, and Seminole) because they had adopted European (white) ways - also were slaveholders, with the exception of the Seminole. For the other tribes, slavery was an important aspect of their lives, although "the chains of slavery were fitted rather loosely on black people owned by Indians," according to William Katz, author of Black Indians: A Hidden Heritage. "Only the Chickasaws had a reputation for treating their slaves as badly as white people."

After the Civil War, some former slaves owned by Indians adopted NativeAmerican culture just as escaped slaves had done in earlier times. This is obviously apparent with the pageant of the Mardi Gras Indians. The Creole Wild West krewe was founded in 1885 by Becate Batiste, a man of African, French, and Choctaw ancestry.


More than 80 cities in Louisiana celebrate Mardi Gras, and thousands of people gather in New Orleans for the annual event - even in 2006 when there was concern that the celebration would not occur because of the severe damage from Hurricane Katrina the previous year. The 2006 celebration was the 150th anniversary of the city's first formal parades. Following custom, streets were lined with spectators eager to capture "throws" - beads, trinkets, and other items tossed to the crowd by costumed people in parades.

Traditionally, the Zulu parade is held on the Monday before Fat Tuesday, when the Zulu king and queen arrive on a barge for a riverside festival. Before dawn the next day, the Zulus get on their floats and others prepare to march. Along the route, they distribute throws that are highly prized hand-painted coconuts. The Mardi Gras Indians perform on Fat Tuesday. There are dozens of tribes known by such names as Hard Head Hunters, Red Hawk Hunters, Mohawk Hunters, Creole Wild West, Black Seminoles, and Golden Blades. They parade in highly structured suits (as they are called), decorated with beads, feathers, and sequins or rhinestones and topped with elaborate headdresses. Each suit is assembled annually, created from parts of the costume that were used the previous year as well as new components. The suits can weigh over 100 pounds and are expensive to create, costing up to thousands of dollars.

During the march, the Mardi Gras Indians perform a ritual of song and dance in a calland-response style closely related to African music. Each tribe has a "big chief" who heads the pageant that includes spy boys and flag boys who march in front of the krewe. The first spy boy looks out for any rival tribes who may be encountered for mock battles. In earlier days, physical clashes were real, but rivalry in modern pageants is primarily competition over the costuming.

Another Mardi Gras custom that originated with the all-white Comus krewe, but has been carried on by African Americans, is the flambeaux spectacle. Parades at night are led by African Americans with torches that not only light up the sky but also are part of the black tradition and total pageantry displayed at Mardi Gras.

Contacts and Web Sites

Mardi Gras Indians

"Mardi Gras Traditions" New Orleans Tourism Marketing Corp.

New Orleans Convention & Visitors Bureau 2020 St. Charles Ave. New Orleans, LA 70130 800-672-6124

Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club, Inc. 732 N. Broad St. New Orleans, LA 70119 504-827-1661

Further Reading

Gay, Kathlyn. I Am Who I Am: Speaking Out about Multiracial Identity. New York: Franklin Watts, 1995. Katz, William Loren. Black Indians: A Hidden Heritage. New York: Atheneum, 1986. Root, Maria P. P., ed. Racially Mixed People in America. Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications, 1992. Smith, Michael P. Mardi Gras Indians. Gretna, LA: Pelican Publishing Co., 1994.
African-American Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations, 1st ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2007