Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Flame on Glambeauxs...get your carnival on

An article posted on the Louisiana Justice Institute's website yesterday by Gianna Chachere addresses her distaste for the new Mardi Gras krewe (I guess you'd call them a krewe), the Glambeauxs.  The Glambeauxs are an all-female group of flambeauxs that will be marching in carnival for the first time this year.

Take the time to read Chachere's thesis and I'd like to chime in:

Glambeaux:  Taking Cultural Appropriation Too Far

Having studied anthropology in college and worked at the Smithsonian Institute for 3 formative years of my life I've read a lot of theory about culture and religion.  But admittedly, I'm still trying to wrap my ahead around the whole notion of "cultural appropriation".  I am familiar with the process of acculturation which is essentially how all culture evolves but cultural appropriation appears to define some type of violation of one culture borrowing or I guess you could say stealing from another by co-opting their iconography, music, food, etc.  It's a curious notion to me.

 Here's the problem with social science, it lies mostly in the realm of the human mind, especially the definition of "culture" so when someone in the discipline says something exists,  quite often it suddenly does.  Refer to the term "meme" that originated in Richard Dawkins book, The Selfish Gene.

I would make an argument that the concept of "cultural appropriation" didn't exist twenty years ago.  Nor did "culture bearers", a term which drives me absolutely batshit.

Tangent - There is no responsibility for an individual to "bear one's culture".   I think that term is uniquely associated with the effort to commodify a culture's rituals, behaviors, elements and practices.  If that's what those who identify with the culture choose to do, so be it, but there is no responsibility on behalf of any culture to bear itself to anyone else.  I hate that fucking semantic construct...hate it. 

Chachere seems rather upset that the Glambeauxs have acculturated the Flambeaux tradition in an effort "...to be seen, to be hip, to be ironic".  Well...I would assume anyone who marches in a parade obviously wants to be seen.  I don't know too many people that don't want to look intriguing or "hip" if they are on display and irony is one of the most critical elements of carnival to begin with.  I'm not sure why she's upset about the Glambeauxs aspirations in this respect.

But I want to get back to the issue of "cultural appropriation" or as I would simply call it, acculturation.

There's a certain dudgeon and sacrosanctity in this city with many of its cultural entities.  The most apparent to me would be the Mardi Gras Indians, whom Charchere herself mentions in her post.  As with jazz funerals, a horde of photographers (known as the third line) seem to always encompass the MG Indians when they march and that seems to be a violation of the ritual to Chachere.  I agree they can be bothersome, because I have been one myself and I admit I was bothersome at times, but I disagree that they violate the ritual.  If the Indians didn't want them there I have a feeling they would disappear by commission or omission pretty quickly.  

To me, there is probably no better example of acculturation in this city than the MG Indians.  But I would like to pose a question to Gianna about the MG Indians in respect to "cultural appropriation" vis-a-vis her disapproval of the Glambeauxs...."Have you ever considered that Native Americans are offended by the Mardi Gras Indians?"

Does that sound outrageous to you?  Well, it doesn't to me because one of my good friends who lived in New Orleans around the late 90's, early 00's, was Native American (Santo Domingo Pueblo to be exact) and he was somewhat uncomfortable with the Mardi Gras Indians.  To some extent, he felt like it was mockery of his "culture".

I'm not dissing the Mardi Gras Indians (yes I am familiar with their history..I would recommend American Uprising:  The Untold Story of America's largest Slave Revolt for those who want to learn more about the cooperation between Native Americans and African slaves in New Orleans and the surrounding area), nor am I suggesting that all Native Americans feel the way my friend did, but I bring it up to make a point.

All cultural entities...all of them...every single one of them...is guilty of "cultural appropriation" if you choose to look at it as a violation from one culture to another.  All cultures have evolved from those that have come before them and from the blending and influence of "non-native" cultures.

Acculturation is to anthropology as natural selection is to evolution...innate.

At the forefront of this "cultural appropriation" argument is the recent rise in popularity of the Mexican Day of the Dead celebration here in the U.S.  There seems to be a lot of angry people that feel Americans are cheapening the holiday by attempting to participate in their own version of it.  Many of these angry people aren't even part of the culture themselves.  Perhaps the celebration is being cheapened in some way but I'm curious if the folks in Mexico celebrating their ritual give two shits to Jesus what people are doing in Austin or Seattle on the holiday...I suspect they don't care.

And keep in mind that the Day of the Dead celebration coincides with All Saints Day.  It is a Catholic holiday just like Mardi Gras so the ceremony itself was "appropriated", if you will, from another culture...Roman Catholic Spanish colonists.   I'm not making an argument as to the merits of colonialism, I'm simply pointing out that all culture evolves and is in some way appropriated from something that came before.

And this brings me to Mardi Gras and the traditions that evolved in this city.

First, let's not forget that carnival is a Catholic holiday at its essence.  Carnival is a "celebration of the flesh" on the Tuesday preceding Ash Wednesday marking the beginning of lent.  It is the one day when you can put on a mask, be someone completely different, indulge at will....and get a free pass from the Pope.  And while it did not originate in New Orleans, there are hundreds of sub-cultural aspects of Mardi Gras that have evolved here during its life span.  Some have disappeared, some remain like the flambeauxs...despite their controversial origin.

I'm not demeaning the circumstances by which flambeauxs originated but I am pointing out that they still willingly participate in carnival.  Their role has evolved over time and while it may make some people uncomfortable I think most people have a tremendous respect for them.  I can't imagine Mardi Gras without their presence.    

Secondly, and this is the most critical aspect of Mardi Gras in New Orleans to me...this community uses this communal celebration to air out its controversy, its political and socio-economic baggage, its problems...through satire.  Krewe Du Vieux being the most apparent sub-culture carrying that torch but if you look closely at all the Krewes, including Zulu...especially Zulu, everyone is engaged in satire on some level.

Zulu is the perfect example of the evolution of controversial carnival sub-cultures.  African-Americans parading in black face is something only New Orleanians understand.  Oh, and Stephen Rue in black face...and I still don't understand that.  Actually I take that back...I don't fully don't understand Zulu but I still love it.    

We have dance krewes of women with names like the Camel Toe Lady-steppers, the Pussyfooters, etc.  I'm sure that offends the living shit of someone somewhere in America but so what?  That's the point.

The Bourbon Street Awards and Southern Decadence have been going on for decades in this city while other parts of the country are currently voting on whether or not gay people should have basic civil rights.

New Orleans hosts these cultural celebrations because, quite frankly, we're better than everyone else...we're more culturally refined than most of America and we can handle Anthropos in all its complex depravity and beauty.  We may not be the wealthiest city, the most educated city...a functional city....but we don't judge people for their freakiness.

You need to be offended during carnival, that's part of what it's all about and that's what makes this city so unique.  This amazing city has the gumption to make fun of our problems for a couple weeks out of the year and go so far as to put them on parade for the rest of the world to come and see.  New Orleans has a lot of problems....racism, gentrification, crime, corruption, poverty...but Mardi Gras is a cultural ritual in which we get to air out many of these problems in satire and that is healthy because it gets us talking about these issues year round.
Krewe of Spank's "Dizneylandrieu" theme for KDV this year.  Courtesy of Peter Athas and First-Draft.
There is a difficult juggling act that occurs with the preservation of culture, the exploitation of culture and the suffocating effects that occur from an overblown sense of nostalgia.  This city has kept those balls in the air as well as any city though it's a constant battle as lampooned above with the Mitchy Mouse satire of The Krewe of Spank this year.

I don't think the Glambeauxs have dropped the ball...not even close.  If anything it seems to me like a rather empowering statement for women.

Carnival is catharsis...and that's what ritual is supposed to provide for a culture.  I know the most cathartic moment of my life was the Katrina Mardi Gras standing on the corner of Kerlerec and Royal singing at the top of my lungs with fellow New Orleanians who had just suffered through the same tremendous sense of loss I had.  My home was trashed, my family was displaced, I was sleeping on my friends' couches...but none of that mattered at that moment...everything was right as rain that day.

People said it wasn't appropriate to hold Mardi Gras that year.  Bullshit.  It was more important than ever.  To say something shouldn't be done during Mardi Gras, you better have a damn good reason why it shouldn't.

I respectfully disagree with Chachere in respect to the Glambeauxs.


Jules B. said...

I can't speak for Ms. Chachere and I don't actually care for her article very much, but I do want to make a point relative to your essay, which I'm reading (perhaps overbroadly?) as an argument of equivalency (everyone's offended, everyone does it).

Society isn't a level playing field, actions don't exist in a vacuum, and rich white people seizing things (including culture) historically produced by poor people of color fits into a specific and ongoing history. I think these power dynamics must be acknowledged in any discussion of the subject.

Equating the trivial Glambeaux, even for argument's sake, with the cosmically profound Mardi Gras Indians strikes me as a slippery slope, one that descends quickly to the la-la and of "reverse racism" and "sexism against men" and "wall street bankers are the victims of kristallnacht" etc.

And now, I will go scourge myself. My partner just asked me from across the room "What are you working on over there?" and I was forced to hang my head and admit, "an internet comment about the Glambeaux."

Jason Brad Berry said...

I think you missed the point I was making about the MGI. I wasn't equating the cultural relevance of the MGI to the Glambeaux's, I was simply stating that even the MGI culture is a product of acculturation and its mere existence offends some members of the culture it was born from.

Anonymous said...

FWIW, the Glambeaux have responded to Chachere:

Ethan E said...

Cultural Appropriation is different than acculturation, and though not necessarily bad, can be used as a tool of oppression, particularly when groups come from different social standing. The easiest example is pop music--in almost every genre, a white artist has appropriated a traditionally black music style and then become both wealthy and famous, while his/her black contemporaries receive neither credit nor financial gain (or at least at significantly reduced levels).

While the Glambeauxs are a relatively minor example, and seemingly pretty benign, they fit into a much larger context, and I understand why people might give them the side eye.

Anonymous said...

I could freaking hug you for making the point that designating certain people `culture bearers`` is often a way of commodifying a culture! Woo hoo! It so is.

I am getting entirely tired of hearing this, especially because the people who claim this term, and those who idolize them, always really turn out to be about themselves, not the culture they are claiming to bear.

The real transmission of the culture tends to be diffuse, and gentle, and spread out across an entire population, and flexible, and highly idiosyncratic in terms of what things get passed on and what things don`t.

Mardi Gras Indians are a little unsettling. So are drag queens, part of an artistic tradition that seems a lot like blackface.

Sometimes, I`m not in the mood. Other times, these things strike me as totally amazing, and I love them.

Exploring complex and somewhat twisted power dynamics openly, in the streets, is sexy as hell.

Except when it all seems a bit much.

Varg said...

At one point, many, many years ago, one tribe of humans and another tribe of humans participated in the act of cultural appropriation with another and as a result we have all the beautiful things that humanity has created ever sense. I am sorry culture is comodified, it sucks. I get it. But no one should let that stop them from what I feel is most important, obedience to the muse. That thing that keeps you up at night and inspires you. Acculturation is a tribute. Yes, one day it will be exploited. Everything does. That can't be denied. But once your glorious contribution to the Universe is out there, sorry you can't take it back. You gave it to the Universe. Like a child.

Jason Brad Berry said...

"Cultural Appropriation is different than acculturation, and though not necessarily bad, can be used as a tool of oppression, particularly when groups come from different social standing."

I understand what the perceived difference is between the two, I'm stating that I don't buy it. Unless you frame the matter in the commodification of culture...in the context of capitalism....I think the whole notion of "cultural appropriation" is simply acculturation.

And acculturation is the natural order of human behavior...it's as inherent as sexual desire.

I think Varg just stated it in a different way.

Jason Brad Berry said...

This discussion is leading into the merits of "Anthropology" as a justifiable science and it's going to take a lot more effort to address that issue.

Some would argue that the discipline is nothing more than a heightened sense of voyeurism and condescension birthed from a colonial "Panopticon".

The attempt to classify culture is a whole other bag of worms.

When I see semantic constructs like "cultural appropriation"....to me it's like renaming sex, "forced in vitro appropriation".

The term sterilizes and subjectively qualifies an objective reality in the human experience.

Anonymous said...

"This discussion is leading into the merits of "Anthropology" as a justifiable science and it's going to take a lot more effort to address that issue."

Great topic for your first show? Podcast?
Ease into the heavy stuff later.

Jason Brad Berry said...

Right?!? Ha!!! Let's do a webcast on that shit!

Whook....I'll go through a bottle of scotch and by 3 am I may make a valid point. :)

Anonymous said...

An excellent piece, Jason, and many good points made in comments. One, perhaps because it's too obvious, not yet made is that many consider the existence of the flambeaux as itself racist, the idea that (seemingly) poor black men are carrying the heavy apparatus and bending under its weight for pocket change. Anyone who hasn't seen that and reeled is missing something inside. I'm half-surprised Chachere's stance wasn't one of wishing for more groups like the Glambeaux so as to not have the perceived look of things as wealthy white float riders up on high and poor black flambeaux groveling for pennies in the street.

Anonymous said...

The Mexican Day of the Dead was to some extent appropriated from an earlier Aztec festival dedicated to the goddess Mictecacihuatland incorporated into the Christian tradition of All Saints day and All Hallows Eve.


Mark Folse said...

On behalf of my Gaullish, Celtic and Germanic ancestors, I think everyone in this discussion should be but in a wicker cage and set afire to ensure that Carnival returns next year.

Yes I have dressed as a bone man, and made a point of running up Fortin Street and down Maurepas early Carnival Day banging a plastic bucket to call everyone out to Mardi Gras. I felt at least that much obligation to the culture I was appropriating for the purposes of costume.

The fact is every aspect of Carnival is appropriated, from the French Creole students who brought some of its key features back from their studies in France, from the tolerance of the Spanish rulers to it (who weren't very tolerant of the original Creoles in general). through the appropriation of Black Indians of Plains Indian dress and yes, I'll go so far as to even call out Fi Yi Yi which--although I believe it as genuine as any other re-adoption of suppressed diaspora culture such as neo-paganism) is not some direct descendent of African shamanism, but its reinvention. One thing you learn in Anth is that cultures change. And appropriate. This cultural diffusion is what made us modern home sapiens with all our flaws. Groups like the Pussyfooters are appropriation of the black dance schools, Muses is a feminist appropriation of male carnival in a way that tepid Iris never was. If we are going to encase our "culture bearers" in carbon freezing and display them behind velvet ropes is the most disheartening thing I can imagine. Honor them, and sometimes honoring them is imitation and appropriation. It is what is called homage in cinema.

Anonymous said...

There have been white boys carrying flambeaux for some time now. It is a first come first serve deal. Just show up early enough and you can carry. Carrying flambeaux is a hustle to make some money not a cultural thing. When streetcars first started running the conductors were all white men. Now conductors are mostly African American men and women. Should white people be mad a part of their culture was stolen? Hell no. It is just a gig.


check this out ashe .


Anonymous said...

The site containing the original article censored my comment. The following applies to the original article.

It's certainly an interesting discussion to have, but there's more than just a whiff of the "Born and raised" bullshit embedded within this piece. By that, I refer to the xenophobic attitude displayed by those designating themselves as "native" by accident of birth. This shitty xenophobia results in discrimination and an overly large sense of privilege and entitlement. The counterpunch is saying "fuck all y'all" to the self-entitled "natives" (an ironic term if ever there was one) and doing what you wanna, never mind the haters.

As a side note, cultural appropriation happens all the time and it goes in all directions. It's a normal part of the continuation of society. But somehow, the political correctness police only seem to come out when they perceive (rightly or wrongly) that whites are "stealing" something from blacks. This type of myopic enforcement only serves to further a negative vibe.

mardiclaw said...

thank you for writing this. I too have a retort. it took me a lifetime to create mine.

Anonymous said...

Back in the early 1990s, cultural appropriation became quite a fad topic in the part of the world I was living in.

I still like the comment I made to a friend`s mother lo, those many years ago-- if a writer, say a white man, sits alone in his room imagining a black or native american experience, a female experience, more power to him.

We`ve all seen wonderful, sensitively imagined characters emerge from writers who have a very different social identity than the characters they have invented.

Where the cultural appropriation debate has merit for me is not at the level of the creative individual, however cool or not-cool their creative output is.

Don`t censor the creativity.

But take a look at whose work gets published, promoted, made into a TV show, etc.

Look at whose presentation of a community or a people is given social and economic power.

Where we were then, a famous elderly white man was having his vision of Native American life made into a TV show and a movie.

That vision was total bullshit, and better storytellers, with truer and even radically necessary insights into those communities and their lives, were not getting those sweet gigs.

Let anyone create. But be sensitive to the racial and other power dynamics when choosing who to give the money and public platforms to.

If you are talking street culture, street festival, something connected to Saturnalia, to Catholic traditions of carnival, be prepared to be a little uncomfortable about whether the act you found transgressive is a subversion of a power norm, or the celebration of an injustice.

(See this blog`s archive for posts about John Georges`s frat boy friends.)

It is probably both. The certain thing that can be said is that the carnivalesque presentation of the thing that seems racy to you made you aware of some dynamic usually less talked about. That itself is profound.

Ethan E said...

There have been a number of very thoughtful comments here, and I am sure that this will by no means be the end to the debate. I agree that the appropriation itself isn't the real issue (though I think denying that there is a difference between acculturation and appropriation is an easy way to ignore some of the harder issues that come along with it), but it is the commodification that is often tied with it that creates most of the real problems.

However, in New Orleans there has been a long standing issue with others using the work of the traditional African American cultural community for their own profit. Coupled with increasing gentrification and displacement of largely African American communities, I don't think you can unite the Glambeauxs from that entirely, even if they have the best of intentions.

Adam_Z said...

"As population increases, synchronicity becomes inevitable."

Anonymous said...

No kidding New Orléans has a longstanding issue with others using the creative work of African Americans for their own profit!

Dude, the economic system was called `slavery`, and it was all about stealing the labour power and creative work, and even creative power at the level of babymaking, of African peoples in the Americas.

It was about owning the very persons who were capable of creativity, as well as the creative work they did.

This system was formative, and it is foundational.

Longstanding issue, no kidding.

This sense certain kinds of white people have that they really should own and control everything about other human beings is fairly central to just about every problem you could name.

And then you see some black folks raised in this culture passing on the harm done within circles where they have power, just as women raised with fewer rights than men can be passive agressive hell on wheels when they have a little zone of power (mother in law, etc.)

Jason Brad Berry said...

I don't think I denied those problems exist. I am saying this is not analogous to those issues. Female flambeauxs does not harken "slavery".

It's Mardi Gras time, they marched last night...I don't think they ran to the bank this morning to deposit the thousands of dollars they grafted from the parade route.

The world didn't come to an end. Go find some alkaloids and have yourself a fantabulous fucking Mard Gras. We can talk about this in the moments of Lenten sobriety.

Jason Brad Berry said...

Shouldn't you be commenting in Varney's section on Nola.com?

Jason Brad Berry said...

I wish...I don't much of anything anymore. Root canals...that hits my nerves.