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Black History Month and the Mardi Gras Indians

02/19/2015 14:49

Purple Orange and Green Kente Cloth

 February marks the annual Black History Month celebrations around the country, and it is also a great time of celebration during Mardi Gras. 

What does Black History Month Have to do with Mardi Gras? Mardi Gras is French for "Fat Tuesday", reflecting the practice of the last night of eating richer, fatty foods before the ritual fasting of the Lenten season. It has rich cultural significance to many different cultures; while its origins are nearly ancient, it is an important holiday for nearly all cultures. In 1882 the famous Mardi Gras symbol Krewe of Proteus debuted with a glittering parade that saluted Egyptian mythology. Symbols of Egypt, Rome, and Greece are prevalent throughout Mardi Gras.

Who are the Mardi Gras Indians? An important group of people to remember during Mardi Gras are the Mardi Gras Indians. The Mardi Gras Indians are comprised, in large part, of the African-American communities of New Orleans's inner city. While these Indians have paraded for well over a century, their parade is perhaps the least recognized Mardi Gras tradition. Few in the ghettos of New Orleans felt they could ever participate in the typical New Orleans parade. Historically, slavery and racism were at the root of this cultural separation. The black neighborhoods in New Orleans gradually developed their own style of celebrating Mardi Gras. Their krewes are named for imaginary Indian tribes according to the streets of their ward or gang. The Mardi Gras Indians named themselves after native Indians to pay them respect for their help in escaping the tyranny of slavery. It was often local Indians who accepted slaves into their society when they made a break for freedom. They have never forgotten this support. The "Mardi Gras Indian" tribes of New Orleans are, in fact, the oldest cultural organizations surviving from the original African tribes which were brought into New Orleans during slavery days. The tribes are famous for preserving African "dress art" and musical heritage in the New World. The sewing and beadwork incorporated in Mardi Gras Indian suits are widely considered to be the finest example of traditional African-American folk art in North America. Now long hidden in the Black ghettos of New Orleans, the Mardi Gras Indian tribes pursue cultural traditions, which despite being some 10 to 15 generations removed from their origin in Africa, still give them pride and serve to maintain their spirits. The social and cultural activities of the present day tribes continue all year around, and they endure as the carriers and preservers of a rich heritage. The yearly cycle of activities for present day tribes culminates on Mardi Gras day when the various Indian gangs explode onto the streets "rocking and rolling" their way through the neighborhoods. Like small colonial armies on the march, a core of musicians play all sorts of drums and percussion instruments, speak in unknown tongues, and sing and chant dressed in elaborate African-American Indian costumes. 

Kente Cloth for Mardi Gras Whether you are interested in Mardi Gras or not, the rich colors of purple, gold and green make for a vibrant fabric that looks great in clothing or crafts of any kind. We've just gotten a shipment of purple, gold and green kente fabric from West Africa. This fabric is not only beautiful, it has a rich cultural significance. No fabric is more assorted with Africa than the vibrant colors of kente cloth. This fabric is instantly identifiable to African culture, and therefore is a big hit during Black History Month. Native to the country of Ghana, kente cloth has a strong spiritual value. It is a royal and sacred cloth worn only in times of extreme importance in Africa. Kente is called ‘the cloth of kings’ and over time the use of kente cloth has become more widespread.

 What do the colors symbolize in African culture? Purple symbolizes the feminine aspects of life, and is usually worn by women. Gold symbolizes royalty, wealth, high status, glory, and spiritual purity. Green symbolizes vegetation, planting, harvesting, growth, and spiritual renewal. African legend has it that kente was first made by two friends who went hunting in a forest and found a spider making its web. The friends watched the spider for two days then returned home and implemented what they had seen. If you look closely at kente cloth you can see many intricate designs and detailed weaving. This particular kente is completely hand-woven and hand-dyed; this is not an imitation fabric. To own the green, purple and gold kente pictured above, just click here. To see many other kente selections just click here.