Monday, February 13, 2006

Mardis Gras & Pageantry, In Memoriam

I've been back in New York for over two months now. Still, I'm traveling in my mind. I'm remembering the Black Indian Museum, which I discovered with a friend from New Orleans a couple of years ago in a converted Victorian house in a residential neighborhood, several miles from the main Bourbon Street stretch. When the old caretaker showed us in, I felt like a little girl stumbling upon a doll house. The chandeliers lit our way into the anteroom, and I saw the bold feather headdresses that climbed the walls to the ceiling. They sat like offered heads on top of intricately beaded costumes. Each costume stood out from the next, each adorned in different ways - protuding animal heads, breast plates, beads and feathers in color schemes of reds, purples, browns, yellows, greens or blues. These costumes, we were told, took all year long to make. Many weighed over fifty pounds. You could imagine the proud and regal bearing of the wearers on the day of the parade.



The museum reminded me of the importance of pageantry, and the sense of its gravity that I've felt, standing with my family on Eastern Parkway on the morning of the long-planned-for Caribbean Labor Day Parade. I stood awestruck in the museum, feeling a secret comradery with the "Black Indians," this fraternity of New Orleans men who'd carved their own meaning out of the martis gras tradition. I thought about the jazz musicians who also had a strong presence in this town, and the way they mourned their lost ones: a jazz funeral, a grand musical celebration, starting with a slow dirge and ending in a beautiful cacaphony of brass and rhythm. It was a tradition, I'd heard, that stemmed from West African traditions. This train of thought took me back to a funeral march that I'd walked in two years earlier in the Caribbean - the steps of the marching band punctuated by bugle, drum roll and drum salute. I had learned to believe that death, though sudden, should never deprive a community of their right to come together and rejoice in life.

My experience with a sudden loss came years ago, on September 11, 2001. I watched the towers fall from my apartment in Brooklyn early in the morning. In the midst of the afternoon's turmoil, when the phone lines had come back on, I breathed a sigh of relief that everyone I knew in the City was all right. Then, in the evening, I received an incomprehensible phone call. The caller told me that my father had died hours earlier, thousands of miles away in the Caribbean. I found myself in a car with relatives being driven to my mother's house in New Rochelle, feeling vaguely glad to be in motion. Crossing the Kosciusko Bridge, I remember seeing the yarn of smoke widening from the hole that was once the Towers, blowing towards downtown, Queens and Brooklyn, and I had the strangest feeling of fearlessness. There was no need to fear another explosion; my own bomb had already hit.

The beauty of the black Indian costumes so intricately designed throughout the year, leading to one important day of rememberance and celebration, the parade, and the funeral march filled with so much pageantry, lay dormant in my mind for years the way memories often do, fragments that are separated and then forgotten. Until one day while surfing online, I was surprised to come a cross a website from a Belizean newspaper with color photos of my father’s funeral. Seeing my own past before me in color, the memory of the slow dirge, the pausing at every drumroll, filled me with a sudden swell pride and emotion. I began to connect my own dots.

Now the numbness that I felt on the day the bomb hit has been supplanted by feelings that fit better into one puzzle, no matter how fleeting. The sadness that seeps in sometimes. And the feeling of shameless joy that I feel, most often when dancing, on stage, or in a dance class, or in the living room. This feeling is best with friends and family. I'm trying to make this part into a tradition.

1 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Excellent, love it! »

4:47 PM  

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