- Walking Raddy: The Baby Dolls of New Orleans ed. by Kim Vaz-Deville
Though long a subject of scholarly analysis, New Orleans's annual Mardi Gras celebration continues to reveal itself as an important cultural index. Kim Vaz-Deville's collection of essays offers scholars in women's studies and African [End Page 721] American cultural history, as well as casual readers who are interested in these subjects, an impressive array of multidisciplinary perspectives on the historical construction and recent reemergence of a Mardi Gras masking tradition known as the Baby Dolls. Women in communities marginalized by Jim Crow segregation embraced opportunities to leverage the expanded expressive liberties afforded them during carnival season. They created new identities through the use of increasingly ritualized cultural practices, providing themselves with a new and transgressive forum to contest, critique, and ironize the same social constraints that had previously disempowered them. Public presentation of women's bodies in motion became a powerful and purposeful assertion of individual and collective black female autonomy that directly challenged the same normative concepts of race, gender, and class that had been imposed on them.
Walking Raddy: The Baby Dolls of New Orleans deftly navigates its complex sociocultural terrain in a manner that is both intimate and scholarly. Personal narratives of individual dancers, such as Henrietta Hayes Warrick, an important cultural transmitter of the earliest Claiborne Avenue Baby Doll traditions, and Cinnamon Black, a current practitioner, help structure the book's introductory passages with an informants' framework, creating a thematic unity that informs the eclecticism of the accompanying essays. In particular, Warrick's own longevity embodies this unifying aspect of historical continuity, which helps tie together the wide variety of perspectives on this unique gendered practice.
From biographical essays on influential musicians and dancers, including Lionel Batiste and Antoinette K-Doe, to historical chronologies documenting local and national influences that helped shape their communities, this collection embodies a multiplicity of expression that resembles the kaleidoscopic visual culture it reveals among the various Mardi Gras krewes. Essays deeply rooted in the neighborhoods themselves are among the most effective. Local knowledge is leveraged to reveal the nuanced shades of propriety that distinguished later Baby Doll dancers from their earlier antecedents among neighborhood prostitutes. This methodological approach also contributes to a better understanding of the subsequent evolution of some Baby Doll troupes into more traditional community, social, and philanthropic organizations. Less effective are background essays that propose to encompass broader issues of race and gender through more generalized approaches. For example, one essay compares the local use of the term baby with its use in lyrics by Tin Pan Alley songwriters, an argument that would have been enhanced by the introduction of more meaningful connections between these songs and New Orleans itself.
The last few chapters—of a book that is already richly illustrated with images and photographs of relevant practitioners and locations—are dedicated to a celebration of the continuing resonance of Baby Doll traditions, as expressed through the work of contemporary visual artists. From figurative paintings and sculptures to folk art quilts and pillows, these pieces embody the exuberance of the participant and the pleasure of the spectator with an immediacy that would have been difficult to express through the written word.
Issues surrounding cultural preservation and the transmission of heritage often provoke important subtexts that, in this case, help direct the work of many of Walking Raddy's authors. The scope of their questions concerning continuity of practice and the transformation of meaning among various generations of [End Page 722] Baby Dolls over time seems to overflow traditional disciplinary silos. By providing readers with an insider's insight into the agency of women operating within these small but historically significant neighborhoods in one of America's great cities, the essays reveal a truly neglected ingredient in the recipe of New Orleans's rich gumbo of culture. More important, readers also learn the degree to...