Freedom and Restrictions in Lyle Saxon’s Description of Mardi Gras

Recently, I posted on Robert H. deCoy’s description of Mardi Gras in The Nigger Bible (1967). In that post, I discussed the carnivalesque of the Mardi Gras season and the inversion of reality. With that inversion though, comes the realization that things will return to normal once the carnival season ends and the season of Lent begins with Ash Wednesday. deCoy describes the effects of Mardi Gras on African Americans in the Crescent City, pointing out that even while the season acts as a time out of time the social strictures that work to keep African Americans in subjugation during the rest of the year maintain even during a period when the world is figuratively inverted.

Today, I want to take a moment to look at Lyle Saxon’s portrayal of Mardi Gras in Fabulous New Orleans (1928), a book that appeared forty years before deCoy’s. Part one of Saxon’s book is entitled “Mardi Gras,” and the six chapter section details the travels of a boy from the country, a plantation specifically, throughout the city on Mardi Gras day. His grandfather, who remains at the house of a friend, allows his friend’s “Negro” servant Robert to take his young sire all over the town, showing his everything there is to be seen in the city on the day of the festival.

Saxon’s description of the young boy’s journey with Robert throughout the streets of New Orleans around the turn of the twentieth century (possibly 1903 when Saxon initially came to the city for the first time) needs to be read in conjunction with accounts like deCoy’s because it provides an interesting way to examine movement and race even during a time of apparent liminality. The boy travels all around the Vieux Carre, back towards Rampart Street (the African American section), towards Canal Street (the dividing line between the old city and the American section), and even to the Irish Channel.

When Robert begins his journey with the boy, the servant knows that he must, like the boy, disguise himself. As the pair go to a shop for a “red devil” costume for the boy, Robert asks the clerk for another costume, one for “dis chile’s brother”; perplexed, the boy wonders why Robert needs another costume, but he remains silent (16). The pair head to Robert’s room, and the boy realizes what the second costume is for Robert. After Robert puts on the second devil costume, the boy claims, “[N]o one could tell whether he were a white man or a negro–or a Chinaman or anything else, for that matter” (20). Robert’s mask provides him with the opportunity to maneuver around the city, undeterred, so he can see everything and show the boy everything that Mardi Gras has to offer.

Saxon presents the racial disparities in the city as the couple travel around the town; for instance, he mentions the transition from white to mulatto to black prostitutes as they go further back in the French Quarter. While he does this, Saxon provides even subtler hints at the remaining inescapable prejudice that exists. At one point, Robert takes the boy to The High Brown Social and Athletic Club, and the people gathered there “seemed to object to [the boy]” and his presence, even though he did not remove his mask; in fact, Robert tells the boy to leave his mask on while they are there (46). Robert’s cautioning is to protect the boy from any sense of impropriety because he is in an African American establishment.

As the boy must leave his mask on in the club, Robert must leave his on when they travel into the hotel lobbies and saloons throughout the Vieux Carre. When they enter these establishments, Robert tells his companion to “raise [his] mask, and that, if any-one asked questions, [he] must reply that [they] were looking for someone” (51). While the boy raises his mask, Robert keeps his securely on his face, never revealing he is an African American, and eventually the boy realizes the reason why. He thinks, “Masked, he could not be distinguished from a white man–if he did not speak–and holding a small white boy by the hand, he could gain access anywhere” (51). Robert gains access to racially restricted spaces on Mardi Gras because he does not reveal his true identity. Continuing his thoughts, the boy says, “It is highly probable that Robert saw places that day that he had never seen in his life before and never saw again” (52).

Looking back on the experience, the narrator realizes the importance of what occurred that day in relation to Robert. He understands, even though he does not express it explicitly, that the society worked to keep Robert in a submissive position. He treated Robert not necessarily as an equal but as a guide. Even though the narrator comes to these realizations, he does not provide any recourse for the situation. Instead, the journey becomes not a journey of growth but more one of mere descriptions. These descriptions paint the picture of the festivities and the “dream-like” quality of the event, but they do not question Robert’s place outside of the context of Mardi Gras as deCoy’s description does.

Near the end of the day, Robert takes the boy to the Irish Channel to see the revelers there. There, Robert keeps his mask on because, as he tells the boy, “White men’s up this away would jes’ as soon kill a nigger as eat dinner!” (53) With the mask, though, Robert does not have to fear any such actions from the partiers. He has, through the disguise, the ability to slip in and out of white spaces, just as the boy has the ability to slip in and out of African American spaces, without the fear of confrontation because people assume he is white or the boy is black.

At twilight, revelers must remove their masks before the final parade of the day, Comos. The boy sees this rule as necessary because “the masks had been used to shield criminals in the old days” (55). With the unmasking, Robert and the boy become restricted in where they can and cannot go. They watch the final parade on the steps of the statue of the Robert E. Lee statue in Lee Circle (a space that should have its own discussion). After the parade, the boy’s grandfather appears and relieves Robert of his duties. Robert promptly goes home, and the boy, with his grandfather, enters the Opera House to see the Comus ball. Since he had to unmask, Robert cannot enter the Opera House, so the boy’s grandfather enters to fulfill the edict that he must see “everything.”

On Ash Wednesday, the boy sees Robert again and asks, “Oh, wasn’t Mardi Gras grand? Robert, do you remember . . . ” (69). Robert simply replies, “Ah don’t ‘member a thing about it” (69). Everything has returned to normal. Robert “never” went to the hotel lobbies or the Irish Channel and the boy “never” went to the Athletic Club. However, we know this is not the case. The event becomes something akin to Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a fantasy like experience (as the narrator describes it throughout) that leaves the participant really wondering whether or not the events took place.  This, however, is a discussion for another day.

Along with the idea of the “dream,” it would also be worthwhile to look at the ways that Saxon describes some the revelers in relation to deCoy. Both authors present men dressed as women and men pushing baby carriages down the street, in similar ways. There are items that appear too similar to discount. What are your thoughts? What other texts about Mardi Gras should we examine in relation to one another? Let me know in the comments below.

Saxon, Lyle. Fabulous New Orleans. Gretna: Pelican Publishing Company, 1988.

 

Lyle Saxon 1938

 

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