“Hey Baby!”: A Review of The"Baby Dolls": Breaking the Race and Gender Barriers of the New Orleans Mardi Gras Tradition. By Kimberly Vaz. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 2013.
The Baby Dolls: Breaking the Race and Gender Barriers of the New Orleans Mardi Gras Tradition presents the reader with a real and refreshing fount of knowledge that is a testament to the (ahem) dark traditions, people and passions of an extraordinarily unique place in an age when Hollywood renames a city (The Big Easy), has its natives/indigenous people using terms like “cher”, and features deliriously dancing darkies in the streets oblivious to the socio-political forces that are arraigned in caustic concert for their destruction by deliberately designed displacement. This impeccably researched work by Kim Marie Vaz, Associate Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and Professor of Education at Xavier University of Louisiana, reflects a cultural continuum in the chronicles of transcendent published paeans to the city as reflected in the works of seminal New Orleans literary canonical luminaries such as Christian, Hearn, Toole, Keyes, Rice, Saloy, ya Salaam, and Medley.
To understand the Baby Dolls one must picture a group of women (some wearing face masks) marching in the streets all on a Mardi Gras Day in garters, short satin dresses and bonnets that Vaz describes as “a common way of titillating the male fantasy.” They were “raddy” (breathtakingly tawdry), cigar-smokin’, money-tossin’ street wimmins who took no mess and knowed they was the best. She reveals the politics of the earliest women’s krewes (parading/social organizations) and the male-centric balls that had restrictions on their mode of dress and behavior while men were allowed to “mask and behave in ways that suited themselves”. There were even male Baby Dolls in those earlier marching exhibitions during an era when it was ferociously frowned upon (even more than today) to be openly gay in the black community.
Vaz presents an historical perspective on the root beginnings of the Baby Doll tradition through a century of documentation via interviews of seminal members, photographs of past and present participants, and other memorabilia of the ladies in garters and bloomers. In early Baby Doll days the dancing, prancing, swaggering women would be bonneted and mini-dressed while toting a doll and would jocularly accuse men they gamboled by of being the “baby’ daddy” long before that expression was widely incorporated into the American linguistic construct. She recounts how some of the archetypal Baby Dolls were prostitutes who would “turn tricks during their processions” and notes how those earliest Baby Dolls were designated as “dark girls of more than good will.” She recounts the legendary Million Dollar Baby Dolls and their Storyville-era brothel origins (to their post-Katrina emergence) and notes their salient contribution to New Orleans history, women’s chronicles, the Louisiana narrative and the Southern cultural tableau. According to Vaz, “they’ve always captured the imagination and became a beloved institution.”
Vaz, whose excruciating research of the Baby Dolls began in 2010, says she was “inspired by looking at a series of traditions by people who had been discriminated against…even Italian women were left out of the mainstream”, unmasks the social taboo of sex across the symbolic landscape of the color line “especially the indulgence of white male fantasies about the primitive sexuality of women of color”, the much-preferred “brownies” who were central to the economic interests of the city forgotten by care. She relates the Nineteenth Amendment-era lives of these black women and the challenges they faced by restrictions on “their ability to become gainfully and respectfully employed.” She uncovers an era when legalized prostitution was a prime alternative employment opportunity for African American New Orleans women whose other options included “washerwomen, servants in private homes, agricultural laborers, (and) factory workers.”
You’ve come a long way, Baby Doll….
Today’s Baby Dolls who participate in this intergenerational art form are women of all ages, political persuasions, marital statuses, avocations, economic levels, and yes -- races -- who delight in resurrecting a masking tradition with an inextricable linkage to yesteryear’s revelers and matriarchs. Today’s Baby Dolls continue to strut their stuff at Second Line street parades and demonstrations, panel discussions, cabaret shows and receptions. The beloved institution continues to capture the imagination through their intricate choreography, sensual suggestiveness and faithfulness to a New Orleans tradition as time-honored as the Mardi Gras Indians.
This book is a must-git for anyone even remotely interested in New Orleans rituals, legends, customs and commemorations. So clap y’all hands, stomp yo’ feet, and git real raddy with it.
I know DAT’S right!
Professor Arturo aka Arthur Pfister
Author of My Name Is New Orleans: 40 Years of Poetry & Other Jazz
Professor ARTURO (aka Arthur Pfister) is a Spoken Word artist, educator, performer, editor and speechwriter. ARTURO, one of the original Broadside poets of the 1960s, Pfister is a native New Orleanian who relocated to Connecticut (to be near friends and family) after Hurricane Katrina and the levee break. Pfister is featured in our Katrina 2012 issue. His newest book, Eritrean Princess, is now available from Louisiana-focused publisher, Margaret Media.