February 17, 2021
By Aurélie Godet, Associate Professor in American Studies at the Université de Paris. She is currently working on the history of New Orleans through the prism of festivities.
Though Mardi Gras usually is the crowning event of a long and intense carnivalistic season in New Orleans, cancelling the parades (a decision made on November 17, 2020) and closing bars and some of the major streets (announced on February 7, 2021) foreshadows a much less festive ambiance for February 16.
The main preoccupation of the city is to not repeat the March 2020 scenario when thousands of tourists had left New Orleans coughing and complaining of a strange loss of taste and smell. The national press had quickly identified the carnival as a "super spreader" (information confirmed since by different epidemiological studies) and had wondered why it was maintained despite alarming signs.
This is also to avoid a heavier toll than what had been paid locally: 700 victims from just the Orleans parish, of which a number of representatives of the local festive and musical arts such as Ronald Lewis, Director of The House of Dance and Feathers Museum, Sylvester Francis, Director of the Backstreet Cultural Museum, Ellis Marsalis, pianist and partriarch of one of the biggest neo-orleans musical families and several members of the Zulu Social Aid & Pleasure Club.
Anticipating (and more often, encouraging) the measures taken by mayor LaToya Cantrell, the carnival organizations (krewes) have, for several months now, thought about new types of festivities, compatible with the health measures recommended nationally. That's why the 2021 year could give birth to a new carnivalistic tradition: transforming houses into floats by people themselves (with, sometimes, the help of local artists). The result, in turn satirical, nostalgic or poetic, has been displayed since January 6 to residents and tourists who go on the main roads of the city, but also on social media (@House Float, #housefloat), or in quickly printed books whose proceeds are partially given to actors from the arts sector, particularly affected. The model even has imitators beyond Louisiana since the map of house floats published on the Krewe of House Floats' website has cities as diverse as Portland, Buffalo, Cincinnati, Anchorage, Londres, Perth and Abu Dhabi.
At the same time, the Krewe of Red Beans has become philanthrophic, using the funds gathered from local economic stakeholders and foundations to provide precious food aid to health personnel (Feed the Front Line NOLA) and to local festive arts' artists (Feed the Second Line), before subsidizing the carnival artists' work (Hire a Mardi Gras Artist) and saving some bars on the verge of closing permanently (NOLA Bean Coin).
As for other major players on the local festivities scene, such as Barry Kern, Director of the Blaine Kern’s Mardi Gras World amusement park and John Georges, owner of the news sites Nola.com and TheAdvocate.com, they have promoted a virtual carnival (Mardi Gras For Y’All) loaded with concerts, media reports, interviews and archive images, the content having been released in three parts on February 12, 13 and 14. The main goal of the initiative, widely supported by the New Orleans town hall, the tourism sector and the leaders of the largest carnival organizations, was to take care of the city's branding in the United States and abroad.
The energy deployed to animate this type of "carnival", as well as the carnivalistic organizations, in such a difficult situation is impressive, and confirms the tight intertwining between festivities and civic identity in New Orleans. Already in 1857, Jesse Milton Emerson said that:
"Amusements form a leading feature of life in New Orleans, and, perhaps, are as much overdone there as they are neglected or undervalued in New Haven, and in most New England towns. […] There is visible in the population a sort of reckless gayety, and a passion for amusement, and a disregard of death, quite surprising to a cautious man". Jesse Milton Emerson, "Up the Mississippi", Emerson’s Magazine and Putnam’s Monthly 5: 40, octobre 1857, pp. 433–56, 443.
For many, it gives definitive proof that the carnival never really dies (as Emily Perkins and Katherine Dunn of the Historic New Orleans Collection recently reminded us, it has survived fourteen cancellations between 1857 and 2021), that "bad years inspire grand carnivals" and that New Orleans, a fragile city in many ways, is not down yet (or submerged). This resilience speech, largely broadcasted in the media, reminds us a lot of the one that took place in 2006 after hurricane Katrina passed through.
This overflow of creativity also confirms a tendency started in the beginning of the 1990s: after decades of exponential growth via the "super-krewes", of advertisement and touristification left and right, some residents expressed the wish to return to a more "human" carnival, more participatory, more satirical also, and especially centered in different districts of the city, rather than just on St. Charles avenue.
So, if the 2021 edition of the New Orleans carnival does not merit the epithet of "atonic", it still raises many questions within the various local festivities organizations:
Though these questions have been asked elsewhere of course (which can be seen in the growing number of conferences and publications on the topic of parties during crisis periods), they are particularly poignant for New Orleans where festivities have been an indicator and an observatory of social relationships for a long time. We will therefore need to follow closely the decisions that will be taken in the years to come in order to recognize the signs of a potential "festive decline" of the city and a more global transformation of the local economy.
 Christopher Benfey, Degas in New Orleans, Berkeley, University of California Press, 1999, p. 173.
 Read on this topic Robin Roberts, Leslie A. Wade et Frank de Caro, Downtown Carnival: New Carnival Practices in Post-Katrina New Orleans, Jackson, University of Mississippi Press, 2019.
 We can cite in particular the upcoming symposium at Charles University in Prague, "Ritualising in Corona Times" (19-20 juin 2021) and Emmanuelle Lallement's article, "From Bal Masques to Masked Balls: Festivity in the Era of Social Distancing", Journal of Festive Studies 2 (2020), pp. 32-40.
Aurélie Godet is an Associate Professor in American Studies at the Université de Paris. She is currently working on the history of New Orleans through the prism of festivities, temporarily titled Festive City: The Politics of Play in New Orleans from the Colonial Era to the Present. She has twice received grants from the Fulbright program to do interviews and archive research in the United States (in Washington, DC from 2008-2009; in New Orleans from 2018-2019). Since 2019, she is co-directing an international journal of research on festive practices, the Journal of Festive Studies, of which the second issue (titled "The Politics of Carnival") came out in December 2020. She published ‘Resilient City’ ? The Double Face of the 2006 Mardi Gras Celebrations, E-Rea 14: 1 (2016), available online.