American Routes Shortcuts: Mardi Gras Day with the Skull and Bone Gang and Baby Dolls
While Mardi Gras parades, gatherings, krewe balls and house parties are not permitted this year due to Covid, we look back to celebrate the music, people and culture that make Carnival time in New Orleans what it’s been and we hope will return.
Nick Spitzer: Mardi Gras in New Orleans isn’t just about parades and beads on St. Charles Avenue or partying on Bourbon Street. Tucked away in the Tremé neighborhood is the Backstreet Cultural Museum, a gathering place for Mardi Gras Indians and other masked revelers, who enjoy centuries-old traditions, including the Skull and Bone gang.
Ronald Lewis: The North Side Skull and Bone culture thing been around before Mardi Gras. And Mardi Gras started in the mid to late 1800s. But this culture connected to the festival there in Mexico, through Haiti and through the Caribbean.
Marian Colbert: The Bone Men is the tradition to start off Mardi Gras. When you see the skeletons, they come out six o’clock in the morning. And then the Indians, and then the rest of the Mardi Gras.
NS: Skull and Bone men wear all black with white skeletons drawn on them and their skull masks are made of papier-mâché. The Bone Men go door to door waking up the neighborhood. Mardi Gras Day starts out very early, and scary, especially for little kids.
Gilbert Davies: The Skull and Bones thing–I’m 54 years old–they’ve been scary since I was a kid. They come out 5 o’clock in the morning, and they gone point at you and tell you, “You ain’t in school. You ain’t living right. I’m coming to get you. You’re doing wrong. This is what’s going to happen to you.” “Oh no. I’m going to go school. I’m gonna do the right thing. Whatever you say boss man.” Scare the hell outcha.
NS: Sunpie Barnes leads the North Side Skull and Bone Gang, that was formed around 1819.
Sunpie Barnes: Well, we bring the spirits back to the street on Mardi Gras morning. We wake up spirits from the cemetery and bring ‘em back to the street, turn ‘em loose on the city out of this neighborhood. And we go all over the place knocking door to door, in houses, waking the people up. And that’s what we do; we make ‘em realize that life is short, so live a good productive life while you can, ‘cause you’re next. So you might as well celebrate your life while you got a chance.
NS: There is another historically Black Mardi Gras tradition that’s making a comeback: the Baby Dolls.
Cindy Davenport: The Baby Doll costumes are basically little girl costumes. They’ll have giant baby pacifiers on them, fun-colored hair, wigs, makeup, and fishnet stockings, heels. So there’s kind of an oxymoron between the baby doll part and the grownup woman part.
Beck Hunter: So today we’re at the Backstreet Cultural Museum, and there’s a bunch of Mardi Gras Indians out here, so we’re gonna run around with them for a little bit. I see some Skull and Bones dudes over there too, right? And a load of other people in costume. So we’re kind of out to show up and have our picture taken a lot today, is probably part of the plans. When people see these outfits come out, everybody in town knows what this about.
Margie Perez: Definitely the parasol, our pacifier, our umbrellas, our bottles.
Tammy Montana: A bunch of ladies—it’s called the Gold Digger Baby Dolls—they get together, they get beautiful like a little baby doll, and they’re gold diggers. And hopefully they’ll marry a rich man.
Margie Perez: It did start around the time that the Indian tribes were getting together, and there were different factions around town. There were Uptown Baby Dolls, and there were Downtown Baby Dolls. And so we kind of call out what neighborhood we live in or where we’re from.
Tammy Montana: I want to keep the tradition going for my grandmother; she started it out, and so my mom did it, and then I’m doing it. It’s a whole lot of fun. The people is just so lovely. You get to just dance to that second line music, and you let your hair down on this day.
Ronald Lewis: You know Mardi Gras is the people’s day. And the costume is just an expression of the people. And this is what makes it what it is, that you can be who you want on this day.
Marian Colbert: Enjoy this day because everybody gonna shake the devil off. Like the priest say, “Go and have fun, you devils, but remember tomorrow is Ash Wednesday.”
To hear the full program, tune in Saturdays at 5 and Sundays at 6 on WWNO, or listen at americanroutes.org.