January 24, 2013
By JANET McCONNAUGHEY Associated Press
The "baby dolls," an on-again, off-again Mardi Gras tradition of New Orleans' African-American community, are on again.
The troupes of women strutting and prancing in bonnets, garters, and skimpy or short, ruffled dresses on Fat Tuesday also are being spotlighted in a new book and museum exhibit that trace their history and modern rebirth.
When the predominantly African-American Zulu krewe hits the streets on Fat Tuesday — Feb. 12 — its marchers will include the Baby Doll Ladies, a troupe formed after Hurricane Katrina. They play tambourines and cowbells to accompany their dance, a hip-hop style called bounce.
Though Mardi Gras celebrations date from the city's French founding in 1718, historians say the baby doll tradition started in 1912 when black prostitutes who worked just outside the legal red-light district called Storyville dressed up on Mardi Gras to outdo their legal rivals.
Storyville was closed in 1917, but the baby doll costumes caught on and survived for decades in African-American neighborhoods.
In the years of segregation, blacks celebrated Carnival in their neighborhoods with informal parades of the brightly feathered and beaded Mardi Gras Indians, picnics and parties centered on the floats of the Zulu parade and costume traditions such as the baby dolls.
The end of segregation in the 1950s and '60s — and new economic opportunities — brought new avenues for African-Americans to participate in Mardi Gras. Debutante presentations at gala balls and more traditional float parades sprung up. And the revival of Lundi Gras celebrations the day before Mardi Gras brought together the monarch of the predominantly white Rex krewe to meet with the king of Zulu to toast the coming festival.
As times changed, the baby doll tradition faded.
But not everyone forgot the dolls, or what they meant to Carnival in New Orleans.
One new group — the 504 Eloquent Baby Dolls of New Orleans, named in part for a telephone area code — will march with a tribe of Mardi Gras Indians and the Skull and Bones club, maskers clad as skeletons in another revived black tradition.
"I've got a wonderful group of women who want to educate our youth, who want to bring our culture back to the streets of New Orleans," said Denise Trepagnier, a heavy crane operator and part-time seamstress who organized the group.
Around New Orleans neighborhoods, you might catch a glimpse of other baby doll troupes with names like the Gold Digger Baby Dolls, the Treme Million Dollar Baby Dolls and the Ernie K-Doe Baby Dolls.
Trepagnier is planning a route for her group. But, unlike the float parades, many baby dolls go where the mood takes them.
Like Trepagnier, dancer and choreographer Millisia White had education as a goal when her New Orleans Society of Dance began performing as the Baby Doll Ladies in 2009. She said she first saw baby dolls as a child in the 1980s.
"That was my first glance of a woman out in the street, expressing herself independent of the men. That was exciting to me," she said.
Those baby dolls were likely the Gold Digger Baby Dolls, the first group in the revival.
Trepagnier said she remembers seeing baby dolls until about 1962. After that, "they seemed to have disappeared. I didn't see any for a long time," she said.
The return of baby dolls is like the comeback of Mardi Gras Indian tribes, which started as raucous groups in black neighborhoods and now are a celebrated part of the Carnival season, said Wayne Phillips, the Louisiana State Museum's curator of costumes and textiles.
An exhibit about the origins of baby doll masking and the new groups reviving the tradition has just opened at the Louisiana State Museum. And the LSU Press has just released "The 'Baby Dolls: Breaking the Race and Gender Barriers of the New Orleans Mardi Gras Tradition" by Kim Marie Vaz, associate dean at Xavier University in New Orleans.
Beatrice Hill, a founder of the original baby doll troupes, gave an account of their birth published in the 1947 book on Louisiana folklore, "Gumbo Ya-Ya."
Hill told Robert McKinney, a researcher for the Depression-era Louisiana Writers project, that uptown prostitutes got word their downtown counterparts planned to dress and parade on Mardi Gras in 1912.
In Hill's account, the uptowners met at 3 a.m. one morning in 1912 to plot strategy against their rivals.
One jumped up, Hill reported, and said, "Let's be Baby Dolls. That's what the pimps always call us."
They hit the streets with cigars in their mouths and "money all over us, even in our bloomers," throwing dollars at men, Hill recounted.
Surviving transcripts of McKinney's interviews show the prostitutes, calling themselves the Million Dollar Baby Dolls, later collected dues and held dances to raise money for their costumes, possibly making them the first organization for parading women, said Vaz. At the time, high society white women's Carnival organizations held balls but didn't parade.
The Louisiana Weekly, the newspaper of the New Orleans black community, identified the Million Dollar Baby Dolls in 1939 as among the city's oldest African-American masking groups, Vaz said.
Phillips figures respectable women were masking as baby dolls within 20 years of the 1912 escapade.
The earliest known photographs of baby doll maskers are cells from a 1931 film that doesn't make clear whether they were prostitutes or mainstream revelers, Vaz said.
"Even today, those in the Baby Boom generation recall their mothers and grandmothers warning them against the lewd and lascivious behavior evidenced by many a Baby Doll on Carnival Day," she wrote.
Perhaps taking a tip, though not their designs, from a booklet published in 1922 by the Dennison Manufacturing Co., some women wore costumes fashioned from crepe paper.
The first of the current baby doll troupes apparently started in the 1980s, when Merline Kimble and friends revived her grandparents' Gold Digger Club of baby doll maskers. The late Antoinette K-Doe created the group named for her husband, Ernie K-Doe, in 2003 with friends including Reed, Trepagnier and praline store owner "Tee-Eva" Perry.
The revival of the dolls complements the long-standing street-marcher traditions of Fat Tuesday.
Among them are the revelers of jazz clarinetist Pete Fountain's Half-Fast Marching Club, the Jefferson City Buzzards, the Lyons Carnival Club and others. Some trace their roots to Mardi Gras' raucous street celebrations of the 19th century.
Like the baby dolls, they'll be strutting their stuff and having a ball before the solemn season of Lent brings the revelry to a halt on Ash Wednesday.
January 24, 2013
By CONNIE CASS
That’s how it goes with kids. You hardly notice how fast they’re growing up, then suddenly big sis is nearly as tall as Mom and the little one is a tween, gently sassing Dad.
On the inaugural platform again four years later, a more mature Malia Obama, 14, and Sasha, 11, smiled, sometimes giggled, and chatted with their cousin Avery Robinson as they awaited their father’s arrival. Sasha bounced on her feet a bit as if chilly; later at the parade she danced in her seat to the beat of passing drummers. Malia, rivaling her mother’s 5 feet 11 inches, looked poised in calf-high black boots. Like any girls their age, they whipped out their smartphones in the reviewing stand to take photos.
Both daughters appeared relaxed and oblivious to their global TV audience, unaffected by their rare status, unfazed by the fuss over their father.
Meanwhile, fashion-watchers were tweeting about the girls’ coats in vibrant shades of purple. For the record: Malia wore a J. Crew ensemble, Sasha’s was Kate Spade, and first lady Michelle Obama was in a Thom Browne coat with a navy print like a man’s silk tie.
Such attention to the Obamas’ clothes, their Hawaiian vacations, their hair — Michelle lit up Twitter last week by adding bangs — will continue as they charge into a time of turbulence for so many American families: the teen years.
In the second term Sasha, who arrived in the White House as a second-grader, moves on to high school. She expressed her pre-teen spirit Sunday, when Barack Obama took his official, nonpublic oath of office. After giving Dad a “Good job!” she added a reminder of his flubbed words four years ago. “You didn’t mess up,” Sasha teased the commander in chief.
For Malia, the milestones to come are many — she’ll be hitting the years when typical teens start driving, dating and applying to colleges. How normally can any of this go at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.?
Life in the White House is bound to feel different to a teen than it does to a second-grader.
Seven-year-old Emanuel Coleman’s grandmother positioned him on the steps of the National Gallery of Art to watch the swearing-in on a giant outdoor screen Monday. The Durham, N.C., boy thought life for a White House kid must be cool, because the president has “his own private limo, helicopter and lives in a really big house.”
“It would be fun to fly in the presidential helicopter,” Emanuel enthused.
Sixteen-year-old Colleen Casey isn’t so sure.
“They have to live their life in their dad's shadow,” said Casey, part of a group of Girl Scout volunteers who came to the inaugural from nearby Woodbridge, Va. “You can’t be your own person.”
That’s the struggle for White House youngsters, said author Doug Wead, who has interviewed 19 sons and daughters of former presidents and wrote about them in “All the Presidents’ Children.”
“When your mom’s the first lady, and all your classmates are oohing and ahhing over her, it’s hard to compete with that,” Wead said. “At any given time, half the country hates your father and half the country loves him. It’s hard to establish a separate identity.”
Just last week, the National Rifle Association referred to the Obama daughters in an ad berating their father for opposing a proposal to put armed guards in all schools, while his children get Secret Service protection. And the president’s been criticized for sending Sasha and Malia to the private Sidwell Friends School.
Even the great stuff — traveling the globe, meeting rock stars, mingling with world leaders — can go to a girl’s head.
Mrs. Obama says she strives to give the girls a normal life — homecoming dances, playing basketball, trick-or-treating, slumber parties — and also to keep them respectful, responsible and down-to-earth.
There’s been lots of speculation that Mrs. Obama, who turns 50 next year, may design her own transformation in the second term, when she’ll be freed from worries about her husband’s re-election. Will the first lady who dubbed herself “mom-in-chief” add to her portfolio of family-centered causes? The White House isn’t yet saying.
Some feminists want to see the Harvard Law School grad take on a more forceful public role. Not all her fans are so sure.
“I like the roles she’s taken on with troops, with health, with children,” said W. Faye Butts, 68, an enthusiastic Obama supporter who traveled from Macon, Ga., for the inaugural. No need to try to do more: “She has a family to raise, that’s her first priority.”
January 24, 2013
By Thandisizwe Chimurenga
LAWT Contributing Writer
During the bleakest moment since the Great Depression, Barack H. Obama took his oath by placing his left on the Lincoln Bible, but this week when the first African American president of the United States took the oath for his second term in office he did so on the national holiday for the renowned civil rights ambassador Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
As resolute this week as he was four years ago, President Obama began his historical second term amid a rebounding economy with his attention firmly focused on the issues of gun control, climate change, the economy, immigration reform, gay rights and foreign policy.
The President took the official oath of office for his second term as established by the U.S. constitution the on Sunday, Jan. 20, in a private ceremony at the White House with his wife and daughters standing by his side.
The public ceremony, complete with a parade and presidential motorcade, took place on the federally recognized holiday of slain civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birth, Monday, Jan. 21.
The crowd in attendance, estimated to be around 700,000, was still sizeable for a blistery cold winter District of Columbia day, but did not reach the heights of the monumental 2 million people who attended the President’s first swearing-in ceremony four years ago.
While the euphoria of that first ceremony seems to have subsided there were still millions of supporters who watched the festivities at home or in public groupings.
One of the Presidents staunch supporters Congresswoman Karen Bass (D-CA 37), noted the historic significance of the inauguration of the first African American president being sworn in on the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday.
“As I look on today and watch President Obama take his oath of office, I’ll be thinking of how we can all work together to further the vision Dr. King gave his life for,” she stated. “Dr. King and many foot soldiers like him made it possible for an African American to hold the highest office in our nation. Regardless of your political affiliations – I think we can all agree that today marks a moment where it’s clear America has moved mightily toward the promised land Dr. King preached so eloquently about.”
The congresswoman continued, “In this spirit, we must renew ourselves to work each and every day to fulfill that vision. It begins by making a commitment to remedy many of the social ills that continue to lock far too many Americans out of the American Dream.”
The Los Angeles Urban League released a statement indicating the organization joins with the rest of the nation in collectively celebrating the future course that has been set. “[President Obama] cannot do it alone. We will lift him up and work together to make America what we want it to be, what it can be and what it will secure for the benefit of generations to come.”
Representative Marcia L. Fudge, (D-OH 11), the current chair of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) echoed the words of Congresswoman Bass and LAUL adding that both she “…and Members of the CBC also look forward to working with the President and our colleagues in Congress on ways to strengthen the foundation laid by Dr. King and on ensuring his dream remains a source of inspiration and guidance for everyone’s reality.”
Locally, Isidra Person Lynn, a communications and technology consultant, viewed the day’s happenings at Derrick’s Jamaican Cuisine in Ladera Heights where she says she and about 50 others were “riveted” to President Obama's dynamic speech. “I enjoyed seeing the diverse America I live in on display so we can truly see ourselves as we are. If only for one day, it all blended together so well, she said.
Political commentator Jasmyne Cannick was one of several people who viewed the inauguration via large screen television at Buffalo Wild Wings. The mood at the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza-area eatery appeared to be one of contentment, satisfaction and hope that issues not addressed in President Obama’s first term would now receive his full and undivided attention.
“My expectations are that he address the issue of reparations for African Americans and the issue of the poor, because this administration like previous ones seems so concerned about Middle America, but never seems to talk about the people outside of that, said Cannick.
“I also hope that we will have an intelligent dialogue in the African American community about Gay Marriage,” Cannick continued. “More proactive than reactive. I believe that the president can be the catalyst to start that type of conversation.”
Immigrant Rights advocates also gathered in the Pico-Union district to view the inauguration At the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights’ (CHIRLA) office Isabel Medina, an undocumented immigrant, said she was hopeful that Pres. Obama would honor his pledge to take positive action on the issue of immigration reform. Medina, the mother of three, has been in the U.S. for more than 15 years. Her two youngest children were born here however her oldest child is also un-documented. As part of the Deferred Action program that Pres. Obama approved last year, Medina’s oldest child will be able to attend college and not have to worry about deportation. “That’s only for two years,” Medina told television station KCAL-9. “What’s going to happen after those two years?”
In Gardena, Black and Latino activists also watched the inauguration at the offices of Good JobsLA, nonprofit organization that works to “hold wealthy corporations accountable to pay their fair share, create good jobs, and invest in the future of our communities,” according to the group’s website. An essay by Steve Askin, Research Director of the organization, posted to the website after the President’s inaugural address, listed suggestions for the President to “redirect the U.S. economy toward justice,” such as increasing the federal minimum wage to $9.80 per hour; restore full employment with a massive public investment program; reduce the non-war military budget to the Bush-era level; investing in high-quality, universal early childhood education; and adopting what it called “the common sense tax proposals in Vermont Senator Bernie Sander’s deficit reduction plan.” Those proposals call for ending all tax breaks for oil, gas and coal companies, and those companies that move jobs overseas, imposing an emergency surtax on millionaires, and making Wall Street pay an extra tax on the swaps, derivatives and other speculative investments that crashed our economy, amongst other things.
The president will now turn his attention to the issues of gun control, climate change, the economy, immigration reform, gay rights and foreign policy.
Kokayi Kwa Jitahidi, president of the South L.A. Power Coalition which provides training and political education for South Los Angeles residents to increase their civic engagement outcomes, was also interested in the issues that the president would tackle now that the festivities of the inauguration have worn off. While acknowledging that gay and lesbian, immigration and environmental constituents rightfully pressed for their issues to be heard, he expressed his concern about the Black community’s mandate for President Obama’s final term in office. “President Obama has about 1 year to effectively move anything before he becomes a lame duck … We have given the president a pass as it relates to our specific needs because so many of us are extremely sensitive to what we perceive as racist obstructionist tactics employed by Republicans,” said Kwa Jitahadi. “This time around, we have to pressure [Pres. Obama] around our demands.”
Kenneth Miller contributed to this story.
January 17, 2013
LAWT Contributing Writer
The inauguration of President Barack Hussein Obama for his second term in office will be held in Washington, DC, on Monday, January 21. The date also marks the federally recognized holiday of the birth of civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
The significance of these two events has been widely noted. Many comparisons have been made with Dr. King throughout Obama’s first term, and countless memorabilia items have been created that cement the comparison.
Some of what Obama shares with Dr. King are his charisma and handsomeness, a beautiful and intelligent wife who can hold her own and beautiful children.
Both men come from strong culturally-intact backgrounds – Dr. King was raised in the loving bosom of an African American and Baptist family and community during the era of segregation; President Obama’s upbringing was multi-ethnic, multi-cultural and international in scope.
Both men were intellectuals, with Dr. King receiving the Doctor of Philosophy degree from Boston University in Massachusetts, while President Obama taught Constitutional Law after receiving his law degree from Harvard University.
Both men have written books and were awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace. And both men have been staunch supporters of the state of Israel.
Various memorabilia that cement the comparisons of the two men also imply that the Obama Presidency is a fulfillment of Dr. King’s legacy. But is it?
“It is absolutely,” said Dr. David Horne, professor of Pan African Studies and Public Policy at California State University, Northridge (CSUN). “Part of what Dr. King hoped for was an America that could judge its worthwhile citizens by the ‘content of their character, more than the color of their skin.’ President Obama is a living testament to that,” said Horne.
“Dr. King also said we have to struggle for more than a seat at the table, or a place in the dining hall,” Horne continued. “We had to struggle to achieve real political influence and leverage within the American system and the ability to help shape the world towards a better place. We had to be the bearers of political morality and integrity, and we should strive for leadership in that regard. Again, President Obama is all that. This is not to say that were he alive, Dr. King would have agreed with every decision President Obama has made – the issue of Libya and drones both come to mind quickly – but, understanding the meticulousness with which he makes tough decisions, the manner in which he has conducted himself as husband, father and as president of the United States, and the very character of the man as president, Dr. King would have been a relentless ally and an indefatigable defender and supporter of this president. Is President Obama, a Black man who is president, within the legacy left by Dr. King? Without any doubt.”
Damien Goodmon, executive director of the Crenshaw Subway Coalition, thinks differently. “I do take issue with people thinking that solely through his election, Barack Obama is the fulfillment of Dr. Kings dream,” said Goodmon. As the recipient of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference –Los Angeles’s 2013 Drum Major for Justice Award, Goodmon stated, “As a Black man sits in the White House, Black inequality on several levels – income, mass incarceration, health – remains, and I don’t think the cause of Dr. King was solely to get Black faces in high places, but to improve the conditions of all people, prominently Black people.”
It is hard to deny the symbolism of Obama in relation to Dr. King’s Legacy, specifically his “dream” as shared on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial during the March on Washington in August, 1963. According to Dr. Karin L. Stanford, political scientist and chair of CSUN’s Pan Afrikan Studies Department, “Symbolism is always important for role modeling, mentoring and demonstrating the possibilities of what one can accomplish, especially for Black children if they live in impoverished neighborhoods, and for adults when you consider the assaults on Black personhood that we see constantly in the mass media.”
“Based on that,” said Dr. Stanford, “the symbolism of a Black person who has the standing of a president is extremely important.”
Very few have downplayed the importance of the symbolism of Obama’s first term but many have been critical of how that first term has impacted African Americans.
In other words, where is the substance to go with the symbolism?
“The president’s educational policies have been very progressive – more funding for Pell grants, student loans, and he has provided a lot of support for community colleges which is a first-stop for many, many students of color before they enroll in four-year educational institutions, said Prof. Stanford, adding that, “He has also provided relief to the unemployed by extending the limits of the federal unemployment insurance program.”
Stanford believes that at least some of the blame for a lack of substance can be found outside of the White House.
“President Obama is part of a political system; the president has limited power,” said Stanford. “And part of our problem is that many Black organizations took the position, argued that we should not criticize him publicly, so we have been silent. It is the job of Black organizations to advocate for what we want as a body of Black people. Now that he has been re-elected, we must advocate for our policies aggressively.”
“The role of a president and the role of a person who pushes a president are different, and we should have different expectations for them both,” said Goodmon. “President Barack Obama will never be Dr. Martin Luther King, and there will probably never be another leader as great as Dr. Martin Luther King.”
Although there should be differing expectations, one cannot help but notice the similarities.
Just as glaring however, are the differences.
First and foremost, Dr. King maintained an inner circle of men who looked like him and shared many of his same experiences: Ralph Abernathy, Andrew Young, Hosea Williams, James Orange, Bayard Rustin, Kwame Ture (aka Stokely Carmichael) and others.
Relying on these men (and some women like Ella Jo Baker) and others he met while engaged in the struggle for Black civil rights helped to move Dr. King to a position where he began to criticize both the economic and foreign policies of the United States. As president of the U.S., Barack Obama has sworn to uphold those policies.
Dr. King told us that we must begin to examine “an edifice that produces beggars” and that it “must be restructured.” Thus far, President Obama’s policies have given succor to banks and other Wall Street corporations, and the “Grand Bargain” he is attempting to reach with the Republican Party threatens to gut Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare which, according to the online newsite Black Agenda Report dot com, “80 percent of Americans, and virtually the totality of the Black American polity, reject.”
While Dr. King told us that militarism was an evil that must be looked at for what it is, President Obama has permanently placed American military troops – approximately 3000 so far – on the continent of Africa through AFRICOM (Africa Command); conducted a ground/air war in Libya which led to the murder of that country’s leader; and continues to maim and murder children, women and men in Pakistan and Yemen through the use of Predator Drones (unmanned aerial vehicles).
“Obama’s Presidency raises a lot of contradictions for us,” says Kwazi Nkrumah, coordinator for the Martin Luther King Coalition for Jobs, Justice and Peace, founded in Los Angeles in 2009.
“On the one hand, there’re Black folks being included in the system and making progress through inclusion. In one sense, that’s what the Civil Rights Movement and Dr. King’s work was raising. What Obama’s presidency has raised, in a very practical way, is that our inclusion in the system, as it is, does not necessarily represent progress for us. But in Dr. King’s last years, he was clearly questioning the system itself; what he was raising is that this system, as it is, is not ultimately where we want to go, as Black people, other people of color, poor whites.”
As we approach the inauguration of President Obama’s final term in office, it seems almost fitting, then, that we ask the question that Dr. King asked in the title of one of his books: where do we go from here?
“He didn’t really feel that this system was the end-all-be-all of our freedom,” remarks Nkrumah of Dr. King. “This economic system, the international relations that grow from it, and the politics based on it, have to be restructured,” Nkrumah said.