American Routes: Cherice Harrison-Nelson
Cherice Harrison-Nelson grew up in a high-minded family of readers. Her mother Herreast ran nursery schools. Her father Donald Harrison was a veteran and postal worker, interested in philosophy and art. He grew up in the Mardi Gras Indian tradition of honoring Native American culture by local African American carnival tribes. The Harrisons have long been concerned about social justice. Queen Reesie is known for teaching history and culture and starting a Mardi Gras Indian Hall of fame. She has studied in West Africa and spoke of her spiritual quest while sewing this year’s Mardi Gras Indian suit.
Cherice Harrison-Nelson: I’m still a practicing Catholic, but I was intrigued about the religious practices, the spiritual practices in West Africa, the almost blending of Catholicism with traditional religions. So every year I have an homage to one of the Orishas, and this year it’s going to be Obatala. Everything is white, he wears all white, and one of the symbols is a snail, so I’m working on a snail. And every year, our color is picked by one of the children in the group, and this year four-year-old Aria picked silver, and so I’ll have white and silver on.
Nick Spitzer: Your father was well known as being the chief of Guardians of the Flame. When does Guardians of the Flame start?
CHN: They made their debut in 1989, so it was Brian, my son, Donald, my father, and other family friends. We had our thirty-year anniversary last year, 2018. My father said you had to put something on people’s mind. You couldn’t simply mask to be pretty. If you were, do not call yourself a Guardian of the Flame. Call yourself something else.
NS: What was it that motivated you to become a queen? I mean you could have just continued in your support role.
CHN: My son was a member of the group, and I was called in the still of the night. I wanted to be a part of it so I went to my father, and I asked my father if I could mask with him and he told me no. He told me it wasn’t for me. I turned to his friend and I said, “Joe can I be your queen?” And he said yes. So I became the second queen. And then the next year, Joe was about the buy the materials, and he said, “What color do you want to mask in baby? What color do you think you want to mask in?” And before I could answer, my daddy told him that I was going to be the queen, his queen. So I was elevated to the position of Big Queen. This is a very gender specific tradition, and the gender roles are rigid. So as a female, how do you find your voice in this tradition? It is not by being a chief, or trying to be a chief for me. It is by walking in that path as a queen. I’m an educator by training, and being a teacher, you always want to share your knowledge, share with others. And that became my role in this tradition.
NS: Now you’re Maroon Queen Reesie. What does that mean? How did that happen?
CHN: I need to hang my hat on the resistance of my ancestors who refused to bow down to being enslaved. And the most common narrative is when the slaves ran away. Put a period there, what is that?
CHN: Calling it what it is. I never was comfortable saying that I was “masking” as a Mardi Gras Indian, in part because I grew up in the Harrison household, and part because I was fortunate enough to study in Ghana and Senegal, and I saw this there. I saw the protocol, I saw the roles, I heard the music, I felt the music in my soul. And it wasn’t masking; it was unmasking. And so now I say, on Carnival day, I don’t mask, I reveal who I am.
To hear the full program, tune in Saturdays at 5 and Sundays at 6 on WWNO, or listen at americanroutes.org.