The Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club sponsors the largest African-American parade in the Mardi Gras, and their headquarters is not far from where I am staying. There is a waterline that stretches throughout the city, in every place where there was flooding, and it is tempting to see it as evidence that Katrina did not discriminate. And while it’s true that people from every demographic was affected, it is clear that those with fewer resources and options were more adversely affected and are having a harder time re-establishing themselves in the city. Nearly everyone I speak with says “I lost everything, but I had to come back for Mardi Gras.” (It occurs to me that although I am trying my best to talk to as many different people as I can, my sample is somewhat skewed, because I am not getting the opinions of the many people who have not been able or willing to return.)
I go to the Zulu Club, expecting to get a different reaction to the whole concept of this year’s Mardi Gras from the majority black crowd.
Here, on North Broad Street, in the brilliant sunshine, families and friends have set up barbecues and picnic tables, and clearly the feeling of celebration in spite of adversity is as strong here as it is everywhere else. I am welcomed by a family who offer me a plate of jambalaya and barbecued chicken, who comment about the lackluster federal response. “I don’t need FEMA to do for me what I can do for myself. But I do want what is due to me, as a taxpaying citizen. How you gonna say you’re not going to rebuild New Orleans when you’re paying money to rebuild Iraq? And if you’re going to do that, do it behind our back. Don’t show us you’re doing it.”
But the overall message is one of strength, rebirth, and forward momentum. “Mardi Gras has been like therapy, given what we’ve all been through,” says one of the board members of the Zulu club. “This is just the start of more to come,” said another. Many people describe how they are working on rebuilding or refurbishing their homes while they stay with relatives or friends.
From the Zulu club, I head to the Backstreet Museum in Treme (pronounced “Tre-MAY”), where the local radio station WWOZ is hosting a party. Everyone here is in costume, celebrating with an eye to the hardship they’ve endured and the work that still needs to be done. Here, it seems, is the essence of Mardi Gras: 85-year-old Uncle Lionel Baptiste, a local musician and raconteur, in tailcoat, a bowler hat and shades, dances with a young blonde woman to the song “Marie LaVeau.” There is something almost timeless about it, quintessentially New Orleanian in its joie de vivre, and once again I am encouraged by evidence that the spirit of this place has not been destroyed.