During this month of February, I have stepped outside my normal posting about race and parenting to work on other projects. Since February is Black History Month, I took up a Black History month #challenge and have been tweeting every day and then reposting the tweet on Facebook and Google+. At the same time, for the entire month of February, I have been keeping a journal for a woman working on her PhD about transracial parenting issues. In this journal, I’m asked to document every time I am either in collision or collusion with racism.
I’ll be summing up the experience of this month’s journaling and posting it soon, but it’s 3:00 am in the morning, and I cannot sleep because it’s Mardi Gras here in New Orleans and today, I am taking my son to see Muses, an all women Carnival krewe that I have greatly admired for years. Except, today is the penultimate day of February and Black History Month and there is controversy brewing about a new troop to join Muses, called the Glambeaux.
I first heard the word Glambeaux when a friend I know and respect invited me to join and therefore LIKE their Facebook page. I did so without giving it much thought – it is after all Carnival time here in our city and everyone is up to something and more importantly, I’ve learned how to be white so well, I don’t have to pay a lot of attention to the seamy underside of Carnival. Except that as I have been journaling for a friend and as I’ve been posting daily for Black History month, I’ve gleaned here and there a fact about Mardi Gras that no one can deny – it is not a tradition that evolved untainted by slavery and racism (see Jews, African Americans and their barred entry from Carnival krewes). Look no further than the blog post of a friend who was traveling back to New Orleans for a few days and attended the Krewe of Choctaw’s parade in which the theme was Vacation Destinies where one float was called Southern Plantations, and in no sense of irony whatsoever white men rode while a Black man pulled them through the Uptown streets on a tractor.
As the days rolled on, I started reading different posts about the Glambeaux and I grew uneasy with the whole concept. The group had gathered 1,039 LIKES since I had liked the page, but not everyone was on board with them. The Glambeaux are women who will carry flambeaux torches in the Muses parade. The Flambeaux carriers are historically African American men and the tradition originated during slavery, when white masters would have their slaves or free men of color carry lit flambeaux torches to light the street for the night parades. A line was being drawn in the sand that was either Pro Glambeaux or Against Glambeaux and I, preoccupied with other issues, was in neither camp, YET. The Pro side declared themselves feminist, seeking to join in the Carnival fun from a position of respect for the men who had carried the torches at the start of the parades and as a symbol of strength for women. The Against side had pointed to the long history of racism attached to the Flambeaux carriers and the never-ending cultural appropriation by white people of anything of color, particularly in this city and especially, post the 2005 Federal Flood.
In one of my journal posts for my friend getting her PhD, I wrote about taking my son to a parade and dressing up in my Geisha costume, which consists of many different pieces I pull together, a black wig in an updo that is Geisha-esque, a green satin robe I purchased while in Shanghai, and a Lucky Jeans shirt with an image from Chinese opera. It’s definitely a mashup, but I call it my Geisha costume. I had not worn it during Halloween when the controversy of some college students and celebs sporting blackface had come up and a long line of posts cropped up about appropriating other cultures for fun, while white people goad the people into assimilation who actually dress in ethnically appropriate wear.
This has been an area I have grappled with because since I lost my hair, I have been wearing a bindi – it is a reminder to me of my third eye, to rise above the humiliation of having lost all my hair, and of a greater consciousness. However, it is also an adornment, a replacement for what used to be my crowning glory. And I wear it also out of a long held and deep respect for the Indian people where this tradition comes from. But it is a cultural appropriation and as has been stated, if I were an American woman of Indian descent and sported a bindi, white people would see me as other, as clinging to traditions that are not American, and it would be one more line of division rather than a cool, hip fashion statement.
So here I am, a white woman [now that my Spanish background is no longer considered a race unto itself according to the new Census, and Jewish people have been assimilated into all the goodness that comes from being white in this country], wearing a Geisha costume to a Carnival parade and daily sporting a bindi = the embodiment of cultural appropriation. I’m also the mother of a Black son, and while I’ve been costuming or posting about Black History Month, another mother of a Black son has been mourning her child’s death while his murderer is not charged with murder.
Which brings me back to how I’ve come to perceive this controversy about the Glambeaux and why I UNLIKED the page. I live in this city because of its moniker, The City That Care Forgot, which puts me square behind the line of do whatcha wanna, our Carnival motto. BUT, I hurt in this city because young Black men are constantly grouped as a criminal element and are in danger. I struggle with my privilege in society especially in the harsh, glaring reflection of my beautiful Black son’s face. I’ve educated myself enough to know that even feminism has a racial divide. AND I grew up Jewish watching grown men, the Flambeaux carriers, stoop and pick up coins, and I always felt uneasy watching the coins scatter at their feet — especially since when I was young, I too had coins thrown at me and was told to stoop and pick it up.
I UNLIKED the page because at the end of the day, my overarching motto for life is to proceed with love. If you are doing something that is perceived as dismissive by a group of people, it warrants a second look. I cannot help but look at both sides of this divide and see a clear Black and white demarcation – that is the first clue that all is not right with the idea. I imagine myself on the curb with my son and a float going by that says Southern Plantation and white men riding in a float being pulled by a Black man and seeing it through my son’s eyes. I imagine my son watching grown African American men carrying dangerous flame torches stooping for the pennies and quarters thrown at their feet. Now I try to envision the women who will carry the torches coming after them – their breasts bobbing in their costumes, their asses twerking as they pick up money thrown at them on the street, putting on a show of how women can be sexy and strong, and out of context it appears no harm, no foul, but following the men, it seems like blackface all over again.
I take my stand on issues that are controversial – I don’t like the N-word and will not allow my son to use it or anyone to use it in our house, even though my son is an African American, and I do hear and understand the right to its ownership by African Americans. I do stand with feminists on most issues, but I do see blindness in white feminists when it comes to issues that affect all people of color, especially women. I am taking a stand Against the Glambeaux because tonight, I will be standing on the curb with my son as the parade goes by and I am the person who explains the world to him right now, and as the wise African proverb states, if you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for something.
2014 Photo by Paulo Steven Diniz