At dawn on every Mardi Gras since 1819, the Skull and Bone gangs of New Orleans have taken to the streets in skeleton costumes, carrying bones and shaking tambourines, to wake the living and run with the dead.
“It’s a beautiful, exciting moment to wake up to Mardi Gras,” said Bruce “Sunpie” Barnes, chief of the North Side Skull and Bone Gang and a board member of the Backstreet Cultural Museum in Tremé, a center of the tradition. “We get up at 4 a.m., come out the door and rouse up the spirits. We have a good crowd of folks following us. We won’t let ’em down.”
A newer tradition, but one now well-established, is the annual Mardi Gras day block party outside the museum in Tremé.
The block party has been going strong since about the time Sylvester Francis opened the museum celebrating African-American processional rituals in a former funeral home in 1999.
Before the museum came to be, Barnes remembers Mardi Gras celebrations as being “more spread out with no real gathering place” for revelers including Mardi Gras Indians, the Baby Dolls, brass bands, handmade-costumed revelers and the Skull and Bone gangs.
Barnes describes the museum as “small and humble, but monumental. The museum is the embodiment of the Tremé; you can go and find the history of the community on display in one place.”
What began as an impulse to salvage a tossed-out Indian suit has become the world’s largest collection of Mardi Gras Indian suits. Over the years, friends and neighbors have donated Carnival costumes, photographs, and second-line memorabilia, such as umbrellas and handkerchiefs, to Francis — to which he added more than 500 films he has taken over the years at second lines, parades and jazz funerals.
The museum preserves the living history of the African-American people of New Orleans, but it also acts as a community center.
On Mardi Gras, the museum itself will be closed, but the 1100 block of Henriette DeLille Street bustles. “It’s a meeting place for people: Food is cooking, drinks, Carnival music playing. It’s bone gang headquarters. It’s ground zero for the street and pedestrian black carnival scene. It’s a Mardi Gras Indian scene with Baby Dolls and Indian tribes passing by. It’s a receiving place for people who want something other than floats and beads, people who want to see old-standing traditions in the 6th ward,” said Barnes.
These traditions and rituals that continue today started as different forms of symbolic and tangible revolt against racial and cultural oppression: Indians suited up in their handcrafted finery, Baby Dolls danced in their frilly dresses, skull and bone gangs woke the neighborhood; all walked free on the streets.
Mardi Gras day at the Backstreet embodies traditions that came in the neighborhood from times of enslavement and freedom. That explains why ethnologists, musicologists, anthropologists, “and all the other -ologists,” said Barnes, come to the Backstreet Cultural Museum and Tremé.
“It’s a living field study. This is a place that is far apart from other places because the culture is still alive: the drumming and singing, the call-and-response, the foot processions still going on,” Barnes said.
On Mardi Gras, everyone is invited to have breakfast with the North Side Skull and Bone Gang from 6 a.m. to 9 a.m. and then to party in the street all day long with the Skeletons, Indians, Baby Dolls and masqueraders.
There will be plenty of food for sale, including “gumbo, red beans, jambalaya. No tricks, just the local cuisine,” said Barnes. You can also bet that Tee-Eva, a Baby Doll, will be selling her famous pralines and pies.
“If you want to see people who’ve been sewing and gluing all year on their costumes,” Mardi Gras day in the 1100 Block of Henriette Delille Street is the place to be, Barnes said.
“It’s a show-and-tell place for folks from all walks of life, low- and high-brow. You can see the alligator catcher, the boudin catcher, the praline lady. Fi Yi Yi Mandingo Warriors, the White Cloud Hunters, Baby Dolls and movie stars, because it’s Mardi Gras and people know it’s the place to go,” said Barnes.
“People come because of the concentration of organic street culture and no one’s putting on airs. People just being who they are. On Mardi Gras, you can be anyone but yourself.”