Honoring the Children Who Make It Mardi Gras in ‘The Whole Gritty City’

Mardi Gras parades are fun because of the floats and the throws, the barbeques and the family gatherings, and the excitement of the crowd, but what makes it truly special is the children.  There is nothing more joyful than the dozens of little faces marching in lines with musical instruments to their mouths, looking so focused and proud. Some of them barely reach waist-high, but each one still walks with a chin up and shoulders erect. Marching with a band is an opportunity for the children of New Orleans to truly shine in the face of so many struggles.  This is not to say troubling racial dynamics do not tarnish the parades. They certainly do. But it is to say, that there is a chance for the entire community to truly recognize the gifts the children of New Orleans bring to our city, often times despite very challenging circumstances.

This is the idea behind the documentary, “The Whole Gritty City.” For those who saw it when it came out a few years ago, I recommend seeing it again. Maybe every year during Mardi Gras so that we are sure to remember what we are really celebrating. For those who haven’t seen it, I recommend seeing it now. The film honors the contribution, strength, and spirit of these children while also making a clear statement about structural violence and institutional racism.  It also gives tribute to the school leaders who guide and support them. In fact, the documentary is “dedicated to the marching band leaders of New Orleans.”

The first scene begins with a voice over from O Perry Walker’s band director, Wilbert Rawlins Jr., who reminds us what is really at stake for these children:

Once that bands gives you that beat, and that music is right, it’s powerful and strong, it’s clean and crisp, just for that brief two or three minutes, you forget everything, every problem you had. You have no cares in the world. It must be nice to live like that. With no cares in the world.

New Orleans has a murder rate that is almost ten times the national average. Almost 7,000 New Orleans youth from 16-24 were not in school or didn’t have jobs in 2014. That’s three times the number of high school graduates for that year.  When we look at who is impacted, when we look at crime, lack of food access, incarceration, low educational attainment and other forms of structural violence, we see that these challenges are concentrated in low-income communities of color.

What we don’t see in those statistics are the stories of those who are succeeding despite those odds and despite institutional racism.  The thousands and thousands of children in New Orleans who are going to school everyday, making art, playing music, and creating the culture of the city we all love are all around us. And on Mardi Gras, the entire community can clap loudly for them, to shout words of encouragement and gratitude, and to show them we care. One of the most touching scenes in the movie was when the children make their way through a crowd. They glance sideways occasionally and raise their eyebrows but for the most part, they do not react.  One white woman, presumably a teacher, shoves a band member playfully and yells, “Come to class!”

Reflecting on the history of Mardi Gras, one remembers that Mardi Gras has been shaped by resistance to racism. Mardi Gras is a celebration of a local identity that melds African, Caribbean, and Native American cultures, despite the vilification of these identities by dominant society. While the original parades were all-white, the Zulu parade, a Black krewe, was started over a century ago by African Americans. It is now one of the most popular parades of the season. And some of the most revered rituals are those performed by the Mardi Gras Indians, who carry on the tradition of honoring the Native Americans who harbored and protected men and women escaping slavery. Their intricate costumes, songs, and dancing are a great source of pride for the city. Moreover, these celebrated traditions make it all the more fitting that Mardi Gras happens during Black History Month.

These students are the continuation of the city’s history and pride.  Through all of the chaos and excitement around them, the students keep moving forward.  They keep playing and marching.  Of course, it is not enough for us as community members to simply clap for them at a parade. There are so many more actions we need to take to truly show them we care, like showing up to school board meetings, writing letters to our representatives, and advocating for school choice and the best outcomes for all children.  But it can also begin with this one simple act of seeing all these children as our own children, and cheering them on.


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