A brief history of the flambeaux

It’s Mardi Gras tomorrow, which means it’s one of the times where I miss New Orleans the most. Because out here, it’ll just be Tuesday. God, I miss that city; when I think about it I get a real ache in my chest. My shoulders pitch forward, and sometimes it’s hard to breathe.

But back to it. Mardi Gras is a time of celebration, wild behavior, and freedom: a time where no one works and the city takes its time to play, to celebrate itself, its history, its traditions.

There’s that word: tradition. Not unlike its sibling, heritage. In the South, we all know what that means. And Mardi Gras is also a time to remember these systems and how they are reinforced and resurface even (especially?) during times of civic celebration, times of tradition. In a city with such a long and winding history, replete with power shuffles, centuries of intermarriage and isolation between communities, and the most racist and inhumane elements of the deep South, the shadow of Jim Crow continues to lean on the city, stifling its progress, pressing on its back.

In New Orleans, segregation and intolerance take shape in their own way, the present crudely twisted by traditions both remembered and forgotten. Two Krewes continue to hold their balls, but no longer march. They’ve decided that cancelling their parades is preferable to integrating their membership. If there’s one constant, it’s that the past is never really passed.

One way to explore this twisted, deeply fascinating history is through the flambeaux, a familiar fixture to anyone who’s been to a real New Orleans Mardi Gras. The flambeaux are black men who carry propane tanks and torches to light the way for night parades, as floats roll by, carrying bodies which are mostly white underneath carnival masks.

“In the history of New Orleans Carnival celebrations, up until the legal unraveling of racial segregation (and arguably far after), the flambeaux were really the only “sanctioned” and protected way for Black people to cross the metaphysical race line of Mardi Gras. Black families who dared attend parades in the French Quarter or St. Charles Avenue would suddenly find themselves cornered by police dogs… To the entire world, the fabulous parades of Carnival, synonymous with New Orleans’ Mardi Gras, were enjoyed by whites only.”

For more: Lights Out: The Flambeau Carrier Strike of 1946


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