Politics of Style: The Making of a Mardi Gras Queen

Welcome to Politics of Style — a column wherein I will consider all manner of presentation in popular culture through the lens of identity politics. With each installment, I’ll seek to contextualize the media we consume by connecting the dots between aesthetics, cultural production and social/cultural/political significance with levity… or not. 

Happy Mardi Gras my little booty bouncers! Did you celebrate? If you (like me) live in the northeast, perhaps not. But even if my body resides in Brooklyn, my soul is fully domiciled in New Orleans, where I’ve lived no fewer than three past lives. My deep love for the city, which is sometimes called the most African city in the nation and sometimes called the most Caribbean city in the nation (and no matter what you call it, the point is that it’s got some very rich, very diasporic cultural heritage), means that I get a little tingle in my spine every year around the end of February/beginning of March, because that’s Mardi Gras time, baby.

Despite not being there physically, in the home of bounce music and beignets and streetcars and spirits (yes, I do mean ghosts), I dedicated time every day this season to pretending I was via Instagram. Which is how I stumbled across what Tahj Williams, a queen in The Golden Eagles Mardi Gras Indian Tribe, was wearing for this year’s Carnival celebrations. AND I ALMOST DIED, Y’ALL. Just take a look:

Why yes, that is a hand-beaded, hand-sequined rose gold Mardi Gras suit. Why yes, that is her grandmother’s jewelry bedazzling the top, and the images of over 50 women detailed around the base of the skirt. And, oh, what is that you ask? YES, this 20-year-old did spend an entire year sewing and otherwise hand-making this entire fit herself while also majoring in Cyber Security and Homeland Security as a junior at Tulane University.

I’mma give you a second to catch your breath.

Got it? Good. Now, I love a good boob-flashing as much as the next gay, but Mardi Gras isn’t just about collecting beads and getting shitfaced in the street. It’s also the time of year when people like Tahj display the suits they’ve spent all year making and pay homage to the Native Americans that helped Black folk who had escaped slavery. “They took [Black folk] in and gave them shelter and let them live with them and have lives,” Tahj tells me of the Indigenous people that helped inspire what has become a Black American tradition specific to New Orleans.

Back in the day, Black folk were barred from participating in the mainstream Carnival celebrations that took place along St. Charles, so they developed their own ways of celebrating, which is how the masking that Tahj practices was born. “Tribes” of Black Masking Indians (Black folk who celebrate Carnival by masquerading in this tradition) arose out of resistance to whites, well, whiting. I gotta acknowledge that this practice does beg the question of whether one marginalized group can appropriate another — something Indigenous scholar Dr. Adrienne Keene dissects thoughtfully here. I’d like to have that convo in another Politics of Style, but today, this space is for telling Tahj’s tale — the narrative of a deep-seated (complicated! complex!) cultural tradition:

“Now that Mardi Gras is so mainstream, so many people are wanting to learn how to sew — now it’s important to them all of the sudden,” says Tahj, explaining why those who mask work hard to protect their sacred practices (beyond sewing: “how we meet, what we say, how we dance, the songs”). “But we are not supposed to teach anybody outside of the culture how to sew. We were never accepted into Mardi Gras in the past, so [masking] is our thing now.” Just like Native people struggle to protect their sacred spaces, people like Tahj try hard to preserve what they do and how they do it, because as 500 years of colonial conquest on this continent goes to show, letting just anyone “in” is a double-edged sword at best.

“You’ll hear [us called] ‘Mardi Gras Indians’ because that is what people who didn’t know what we were would call us,” Tahj says. “But I don’t feel like that term is all the way correct because how can we be Mardi Gras Indians if we weren’t even allowed to participate in Mardi Gras? We are moving toward being called Black Masking Indians.” Culture bearers like Tahj work hard to ensure their traditions like this are kept alive — and archived appropriately — necessary (radical!) work.

“Others may think of [our outfits] as costumes but we think of that [term] as a mockery, so we don’t say costume — we say suit,” Tahj continues. “Every year, we hand-sew and hand-bead suits and, on Carnival day, on Mardi Gras day, we wear them.” Making a suit is a serious endeavor: You get no help in constructing. You never reuse past suits.

Tahj was introduced to the Black Masking tradition through her uncle, a culture-bearer and masker himself. “They always say, ‘If you wanna mask Indian, you have to learn how to sew.’” So she did just that. It was 2009 — she was 10. (“We have kids that mask that are younger than me that know how to put suits together,” she tells me, when I express my surprise. “We have all youth tribes, we have babies that mask. We start learning this at a very, very young age.”)

And now, at 20, Tahj knows the importance of cultural preservation: “You cannot forget where you come from. Cultural preservation is necessary because, like we sing in our songs, we have to carry on. I think it’s important that the next generations are involved in [masking]. That’s why I make the kind of suits that I make.”

The kind of suits that she makes feature flat patch sewing, a style that tells a specific story (as opposed to 3D — “more like creative art”). “I’m inspired by women every day. I’m raised by majority women, so I just wanted to show that it kinda takes a village to raise a queen and I wanted to incorporate all the women that have helped me along the way,” Tahj says of this year’s suit.

She also pays attention to fashion trends, incorporating them into traditional masking motifs: In 2017, she masked in a crop top vest, which had never been done before. This year, she brought rose gold to the Super Sunday streets for the first time. (Sunday is the traditional second line day; Super Sunday is the most significant day for Indians aside from Mardi Gras Day.)

“We always say in New Orleans that Sunday is the most important day, but I don’t think many know why. I’m actually gonna tell you why right now,” Tahj says, her contextualizing of Black Masking’s significance as steadfast as her distinctly New Orleans-style of speech. Louisiana’s Code Noir, introduced in 1724, were laws that regulated Black bodies — everything from our movements to our manner of dress, she explains. “Slaves had every Sunday off from work, so they would gather in Congo Square in what was called their Sunday’s Best. They would dress in their nicest outfits and they would listen to the drums in Congo Square.”

And this is exactly what maskers do during Carnival today, Tahj says; exactly what folks who show out at second lines on Sundays do. “I feel like Mardi Gras here is so important because history like that gets revealed when we talk about it.”

There ya have it folks — the politics of (one specific) Mardi Gras style. As usual, this was a joy to write, and I hope it was a joy for you to read. Until next time, cuties. xE

Photos via Justen Williams/343 Media.

Emma Bracy

Emma is the Associate Editor at Man Repeller.

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