Kate Browne is a CSU anthropology professor who, while on research leave, has been writing a book about a Hurricane Katrina familyâ€™s recovery process that was highlighted in the 2007 documentary â€œStill Waiting,â€ which she helped produce. In honor of Tuesdayâ€™s Mardi Gras celebrations, Browne shared her extensive research of the New Orleans area and this annual tradition.
C: Have you experienced a Mardi Gras Carnival?
B: I have experienced many Mardi Gras parades, including big ones in Martinique in the French Caribbean where I have done extensive fieldwork, and in New Orleans, where I have researched since (Hurricane) Katrina. In both of these wonderful French-colonized areas, Mardi Gras is a huge, popular festival that people from all over the world know about and come for. And in both places, I have been participant and spectator, a line that is often not too clearly drawn depending on the parade. Like everywhere else that has a strong Mardi Gras tradition, Martinique and New Orleans observe the whole week with parades and floats. Schoolkids and social organizations are involved in a very organized way, so the average tourist has no clue that behind all the revelry and fun, there is a tremendous amount of organization and work and pride.
C: What was one of the highlights of your Mardi Gras experiences?
B: One of the neat things I learned early on that most people donâ€™t know is that you never want to pick up beads from the ground, even if you are desperately hoping to add to your collection. Itâ€™s almost like a jinx. Everyone ignores beads that fall to the ground if they are not caught because thatâ€™s just a cheap way to accumulate beads and those beads have no meaning. Itâ€™s all about earning the beads you collect, so that peopleâ€™s collections canâ€™t just be bought or gotten through laziness. Instead, you want to entice the characters on the floats to throw something special to you. So the labor of your work, and the recognition of that labor by the people tossing trinkets is what earns you a cool strand or a special football or if you are unusually lucky, even a hand painted coconut from the Krewe of Zulu, one of the best prizes you can ever get.
*C: How does your knowledge of New Orleans and its culture add to
understanding the celebrations?*
B: Understanding the special ethic of New Orleans makes it possible to enjoy the hoopla in a bigger way. Tourists often just want to drink and get crazy, but locals know there is a lot more to it. There is most of all, love. And in New Orleans, love is expressed through cooking and music, and most of all, it is expressed through relationships with others, not just with friends and family, but with strangers. Everyone has a part in the festivities and everyone comes home with lots of loot â€” shiny, colorful beads, special Krewe cups, coins, toys and more. If you know something about the real New Orleans, Mardi Gras is just that much richer, deeper and more exciting. And if you donâ€™t, you still have a grand time.
C: How does the typical Mardi Gras celebration affect the perception of the culture, of the party goers and of New Orleans?
B: People in New Orleans are relaxed with the visiting party goers and mostly just want them to have fun. Everyone understands good street festivity, the fun of masks and costumes, street music and food, the delight of children and adults alike competing for prizes â€“â€“ so I think that local ethic I was talking about really is quite open and welcoming. Itâ€™s a conversation culture, so if you go with an attitude of being friendly and open, you will find people there ready to talk with you and do almost anything to help you enjoy yourself. Thatâ€™s why this place is so special. I donâ€™t know anywhere in the world with such an open heart towards itself and towards outsiders too.
Collegian reporter Kate Winkle can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.