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Reviewed by:
  • Blues for New Orleans: Mardi Gras and America's Creole Soul
  • Perry Kasprzak (bio)
Blues for New Orleans: Mardi Gras and America's Creole Soul. By Roger D. Abrahams, with Nick Spitzer, John F. Szwed, and Robert Farris Thompson University of Pennsylvania Press 112 pp. Cloth, $22.50

Unlike the many books already published about the devastation caused by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita and the catastrophic flooding of New Orleans, Blues for [End Page 93] New Orleans: Mardi Gras and America's Creole Soul is a study of the city's character pre-disaster, bracketed by post-flood observations and questions concerning the future of a city that nearly drowned due to a "confederacy of failures." The authors' observation of New Orleans as a city that "came into being with a kind of antic doom embedded into it," founded as it was in a hostile New World swamp, is brought into bright focus by Nature's recent, temporary, reclaiming of the land, and Man's persistent desire to rebuild the city. The City That Care Forgot, that ambiguous moniker coined to describe New Orleans as a carefree city, continues to describe a city often forgotten and uncared-for.

For some, New Orleans has always been too black, too French, too sexy, too liberated; for the authors (and, I confess, myself ), these are the very elements that make New Orleans "the crown of the Caribbean," America's "soul counterpoint," a place to celebrate and rebuild because it is "not really an American city," but is a "Creole city." Statements like these are like the many contradictions, inversions, comminglings, and stark divisions that make New Orleans so complex, beautiful, and tragic, and they are discussed succinctly in this thin and potent volume by analyzing the symbol of the city's spirit: Mardi Gras.

Carnival time in New Orleans has always been a festival of contrast, a time for decadence between Epiphany and Ash Wednesday, a ritual celebration with roots in pre-Roman Rites of Spring such as the Bacchanalia, yet it is still a festival that always feels fresh, if only because the costume and parade themes continually satirize current events. The authors reduce this bubbling roux down to New Orleans's "creole" nature, a word that originally meant a person born in the French and Spanish New World, then became a definition for the offspring of French planters, as well as children of slaves. I have heard African Americans use "Creole" to describe ancestors as gens de couleur libre, "free people of color," as descendants of freed slaves were called. The slippery word has also been put to use to describe "something entirely new" or a "surprising mix of ingredients," such as in music, cuisine, fashion, languages, and ethnicities. The authors call New Orleans's tendency to merge disparate elements "creolization," a process that "extends to virtually all aspects" of the city's culture. Creolization, they state, "suggests a comprehensive and dynamic phenomenon of cultural give and take, invention and reinvention, of dialogue and disagreement."

The authors provide abundant details on the subject of creolization, New Orleans history, and the roots of Mardi Gras, but keep the subject moving swiftly enough to make the book more than academic. We hear how Carnival's central elements of parading, costuming, and dancing are American customs drawn primarily from European settlers' pageantry displays and festival elements derived from slave holidays, such as those held in Congo Square, where slaves in New Orleans were allowed a day of freedom to sing, dance, socialize, worship, mourn, etc. Throughout the Caribbean and the Gulf Coast, slave holidays were often [End Page 94] "flashpoints of revolt," gatherings formed to maintain African customs as well as occasions to protest the repressive regimes denying slaves from participation in the larger festivals. Even after Emancipation, African Americans were denied access to certain white Mardi Gras events, even up until the mid-twentieth century. In response to the discrimination, counter parades—second-lines—formed, events where the line between spectator and participant was erased, a striking departure from the standard Mardi Gras parades (or any modern-day parade). The jazz funeral, derived from the traditional slave funeral of earlier eras...


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