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You can’t take my black boy joy, but I can show you how to get some of your own.
Everywhere else in the country, February 28 is just another Tuesday, but in New Orleans it’s Fat Tuesday — Mardi Gras Day. School isn’t in session. The only school buses on the road are those carrying bands to their parade routes, which are lined with revelers clad in purple, gold and green, the official Mardi Gras colors. In areas known in New Orleans as neutral grounds (out-of-towners mistake them for medians), residents secure their grills to anchor their families to prime viewing spots. My 6-year-old son Robeson and I typically hunt for a good open area to claim as much joy (and as many beads) as possible.
This scene contradicts President Donald Trump’s depressing, dystopian sketch of urban communities. “Our inner cities are a disaster. You get shot walking to the store. They have no education. They have no jobs,” Trump said on the campaign trail.
Here are the facts: There were 150 murders in 2014. Young people from 18 to 24 are 10 percent of the population but represent 29 percent of homicide victims, mostly from gun violence. The black male unemployment rate was down to 44 percent in 2015 from 52 percent in 2011 (yikes). Roughly 37 percent of the children live in poverty compared to 21 percent nationally according to 2015 data compiled by the Data Center, an independent Louisiana-based research organization. Thirty-nine percent of wage earners in the city make less than $17,500 a year. Children are twice as likely to be suspended in New Orleans than the rest of the state.
On the surface, Trump’s quote seems to track with the data. (By the way, he hasn’t proposed anything different from what helped create that situation.) Nevertheless, if Trump looked closer at the black community, he would see a togetherness in our struggle that has produced art, culture, innovation and most importantly our joy.
Segregation and discrimination have never stopped black people from finding our joy. When Plessy v. Ferguson established separate but equal as rule of law in 1896, we created the carnival krewe Zulu kings five years later. (Krewes are social clubs that evolved from the secret societies that originally paraded in the first Mardi Gras celebrations in the early 1700s.) The negative outcomes of inequality are obvious — but so is the inability to recognize black greatness in spite of these obstacles.
I love how my son can see that black men are revered Mardi Gras chiefs who dance to a beat of their own with spy boys and flag boys, ranking tribe members. These historic communities that attract thousands of tourists to New Orleans every year were born under the harsh conditions of slavery. Escaped slaves often found refuge among native Louisiana tribes, and carried on and adapted many of their traditions, which now have a life of their own.
“You’re not going to give us a place here in society, we’ll create our own,” said Ronald Lewis, former council chief of the Choctaw Hunters, a Mardi Gras Indian tribe. Robeson learns this history from elders in the community, but to see his eyes reflect the sparkles from the elaborate costumes is to see pure joy.
There is pain in our joy — literally and figuratively. During Mardi Gras, Robeson rides my neck like a carousel horse. With every passing year, between him getting heavier and me getting older, his steed becomes less and less trustworthy. But I love hearing him shout, “Throw me something mister!” With arms extended, he is learning to claim as much joy as possible. But many black celebrations, like the Zulu and Mardi Gras Indians, were born out of real suffering. Our joy is often twinned with some other pain.
Robeson will learn the history of Mardi Gras and its krewes, many of which were and still are vestiges of our racist pasts. It wasn’t until 1991 that city councilperson Dorothy May Taylor introduced an ordinance to officially desegregate krewes. I hope one day Roby will see that the masked, make-believe nobility throwing plastic baubles to the commoners is not that far from the truth. The divide between people who can afford to throw plastic beads and those who catch them is an imperfect reflection of the haves and the have-nots in the city. And krewes often reflect our attitudes. Last year my son actually caught hate in the form of Confederate flag beads.
That didn’t stop our joy. It was a teaching moment to share history and to bond with my son. We threw those hateful baubles away, and that made us closer.
I want my son to know the stats. Rearing black children is about providing context for inescapable signs of disparities between them and their white peers. But for the sake of my son’s spirit, he needs to understand that he is not the problem. In his magnum opus, “The Souls of Black Folk,” W.E.B. Du Bois asked black people to ask ourselves, “How does it feel to be a problem?” so that children like Roby understand they are viewed through the tinted glasses of racism. I regularly say, there is nothing wrong with black people that ending racism can’t solve. My son will not carry the burden of being the problem. Being viewed as a problem is enough.
We perform the revolutionary act of claiming our joy when people like Trump refuse to recognize the beauty within our “disaster.” So much has already been taken from black folk. I refuse to allow racism to take my son’s smile. Our city certainly has its problems, including Mardi Gras in many respects, but today Robeson will take part in the African-American tradition of claiming joy.