Friday, February 28, 2014

Glambeaux go home

I watched the Muses parade last night with surprise at some of the cavalierly insensitive references.

For starters, my Jewish companion and I were stunned by the decontextualized "Aryan" float decoration that, upon later inspection, turned out to be a misfired Paula Deen joke.

Now, before somebody comes out and says, "I'm Jewish, and I wasn't offended! Get a sense of humor!" I just want my lovely Readership to know that it is a little bit wack to put the word "Aryan" on the front of a parade float, and not expect Jews in the crowd to get nervous. While the float was intended to satirize Paula Deen's racist comments of late, it instead highlighted - without analysis - a part of recent world history that privileged some people and violently persecuted others.

Accordingly, Muses invited the Glambeaux women's dance troupe to parade along with them.
Modern-day flambeaux
At many New Orleans parades, in a practice that dates back to antebellum times, a procession of Black men, known as flambeaux, carries heavy torches to provide lighting for the rest of the marchers and riders. Original flambeaux were free men of color or slaves of parade riders. Crowds were encouraged to tip the flambeaux as a way of paying them for their service. To this day, parade-goers give or throw change at the men, rewarding them for dangerous tricks they perform with the torches.

Many in New Orleans speak admiringly of the flambeaux, and consider their role as one of grave historical honor:

"Flambeaux add excitement to any nighttime parade. There is something magical about seeing them bob and sway through the shadows, the way they did all those years ago," writes The Times-Picayune in 2012.

This year for the Muses parade, the newly minted Glambeaux women's dance troupe sought to "[break] the flame ceiling." The Glambeaux founder cites the male-dominated flambeaux tradition as a mode through which women must be able to participate and advocate for gender equality. The group's aim is to prove that "women are just as capable of carrying the weight and lasting the whole route as the men are."

To their credit, the Glambeaux promised to donate any of their tips to Women with a Vision, which supports the empowerment of women of color in New Orleans. 

However, the group's claim to have facilitated women's equality by glamorizing a role traditionally shouldered (literally) by Black men throughout racist times, falls flat.

Yes, the women looked good and well-practiced. Yes, I was impressed they had choreographed dances with the torches. But no, it is not alright to use the site of someone else's oppression as the locus of your own empowerment.

In the same way that I cringed when I saw the word "Aryan" written on a float in 2014 - some 70 years after my own people were first herded into camps and gassed to death under the value placed on that word - I shuddered when I saw (mostly white) women twirl and dance as enslaved Black men were once, and some might argue still are, coerced to do.

Female empowerment and Black empowerment are related. We cannot pursue one without the other, and we certainly cannot pursue one on top of the other.

I suggest Muses, the Glambeaux, their fans, and everyone behind that Paula Deen float take a look at these intersections and come up with something that's actually going to move us forward in the global parade.

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