“Wake Up, Wake Up, it’s Mardi Gras Morning!”…
So went the chant of the Northside Skull and Bones Gang as they floated quietly through the Tremé and the northeast corner of the French Quarter, rapping on doors and windows, waking up those who’d slept in cars they’d parked on the roadside late the previous night, waking up those who’d been asleep in houses they’d lived in for generations…It was a quiet, muffled chant; the bone gang all wore papier-maché masks of huge skulls over their heads. A lone tambourine beat out a steady, slow, singular rhythm. The first one walked on stilts, urging one and all to change their ways…”Stop your cheatin’, stop your lyin’, stop your drinkin’…” he sang, low and slow, almost under his breath…
Through the streets they wandered, five men and five boys, unidentified, anonymous…”Young and old, you’re all gonna go”…They chanted their gang name, “North Side Skull and Bones, wake up, wake up, it’s Mardi Gras Morning…”
Sometimes the doors they rapped on were answered, and old friends would emerge, bleary-eyed, to give the skeleton crew a beer, or a hug, or a friendly wave. Mostly the streets were empty.
The North Side Skull and Bone Gang have been waking up New Orleans since 1819, or thereabouts. The details of their early years are enshrouded in myth, though it is generally said that they began their Mardi Gras tradition in the Tremé around 1830…How or why it developed is also a matter of folklore, but there hardly needs to be a reason. It’s the kind of tradition that has been around in some form or another since the dawn of ritual. From a strictly religious viewpoint, Mardi Gras is the last day, the very last day, of a celebration whose Latin translation could mean either “farewell to the flesh” or “to lift up the flesh”…In either sense, it is a celebration of life that, at its heart, embraces the inevitability of dying. Death is ever-present in this life, and at no time is that more true than on the morning of one of the largest and longest-running annual bacchanals the world has ever known–one that, historically, though largely a celebration of life, nearly always involved violence and murder. So while the Bone Gang slides through the shadows of Mardi Gras morning; as the day grows ever-brighter with the promise of brilliant colors, outrageous behavior, and joyful mayhem; the long shadows of the big chief’s stilts grow shorter and shorter; and death slinks into a dark blue tavern for a cold beer and a soda pop, waiting to re-emerge into the light of day to dance with the living on this the final day of Carnival.
From a New Orleanian standpoint, the march of the Bone Gang plays a major role in the tradition of Carnival Noir, the African-American Mardi Gras. Along with the Baby Dolls, the Mardi Gras Indians, the Zulu parade, and the boom-boom-boom of thousands of black New Orleanians partying under the overpass on Claiborne street (which, before Highway 10 split the neighborhood in two in the late ’40’s, was a major gathering spot in the Tremé, a neighborhood which boasts a 200-year old tradition of Free People of Color), the Bone Gang represents the resilience and evolution of African-American traditions in New Orleans despite all the obstacles that have been strewn in their path. Ironically, in the first two years after Katrina, the black diaspora from New Orleans kept the Bone gang from marching. In a town that had seen so much death and ruin, perhaps nobody needed to see any more skeletons walking through the neighborhood. But thanks to the efforts of the Backstreet Cultural museum, help from the community, and that old Mardi Gras Indian “won’t back down” attitude, the Bones are back.
It is one more note to take on why New Orleans matters, and what makes it the most culturally rich city in America. The rituals and traditions of New Orleans are of the people, by the people, and for the people. They are not mere tourist attractions, but living, breathing expressions of a community that, no stranger to crime, death, poverty, disaster, and hardship, still finds a reason to celebrate, in some of the most unique ways I have ever seen, almost every day.