Way back in 1703, French settlers in Mobile, Alabama – at the time, the capital of French Louisiana and not much more than a tiny settlement attached to Fort Louis de la Mobile – decided to celebrate Shrove Tuesday with a feast and a party. Over the next few years, the celebrations grew more elaborate, with the first known parade taking place in 1711: the Boeuf Gras (“fatted ox”) society put together a large papier mache cow’s head and rolled it through town on a cart, which I’m sure made a lot of sense at the time.

(It is at this point that native Mobilians, like myself, like to point out that New Orleans wasn’t even founded until 1718, and that New Orleans’ oldest continually-parading organization, the Mistick Krewe of Comus, was founded by six guys from Mobile. Ahem.)

And so today we celebrate Fat Tuesday – the last hurrah before Lent – by dressing up in funny clothes, drinking to excess, dancing in the streets, and hurling moonpies at each other. To celebrate, I thought I’d share an interesting symbol and recommend an excellent documentary film on Mobile Mardi Gras, director Margaret Brown’s The Order of Myths.

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What we have here is Folly chasing Death around a broken Ionic column, while whacking Death with gilded pig bladders; seeing as how during Mardi Gras the normal social order is overturned, why not the natural order as well? Here’s a similar image from a float:

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To me, these images sum up a lot of what’s great about Mardi Gras: it’s a finger in the eye of mortality and a celebration of a kind of genial lunacy. But what about that Ionic column? Well, the decoding gets a little stickier there.

I’ve heard a couple of different explanations: one is that the column represents time, the other that it represents the Confederacy or the Old South more generally. It gets a little more complicated when you look at it in context: this particular image is the emblem float of the Order of Myths, and is pulled by donkeys mules and lit by gaslight lamps – which are carried by young African-American men – in the same manner it has been since the founding of the organization shortly after the Civil War. Mobile’s mystic societies, you see, remain firmly segregated, which brings me to Margaret Brown’s excellent film.

Brown – whose first full-length documentary, Be Here To Love Me, is an excellent if crushingly depressing film about Texas songwriter Townes Van Zandt – is a fellow Mobile expat, and her film examines the complexities of race, class, and collective memory in Mobile as embodied in the 2007 Mardi Gras season. She focuses primarily on the two parallel Mardi Gras courts and documents some tentative steps toward integrating the two. I won’t say much more, for fear of spoiling the film for you, except to remark that the past is very much present in the film, in ways that both William Faulkner and Pierre Bourdieu would appreciate. And I’d also add that Brown eschews a heavy-handed or didactic approach in favor of laying the situation out for the viewer and letting them draw their own conclusions, with a few subtle editorial decisions and one late-in-the-game revelation that throws much of the previous hour and a half into a new and intriguing light. Here’s a trailer for the film:

My only real criticism of The Order of Myths is that Brown focuses primarily on the Mardi Gras elite – a little of Joe Cain Day (held the Sunday before Fat Tuesday and known as “the People’s Parade” because pretty much anybody can be in it if they can get a slot) would have gone a long way: class in Mobile is not quite coterminous with race, after all. There’s a lot more to Mobile Mardi Gras than the royal courts, and we don’t really get to see much of that. Similarly, the school featured in the film is more integrated than you’d think, as are the crowds along the parade routes, given what’s shown in the film.

But these are relatively minor points – by and large, Brown tackles the subject with a keen and incisive eye, and I’d highly recommend it to anyone teaching a class on race in the United States.

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For the record, the title of the post translates as “time flies, remember you are mortal, party on.”

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