One Baby Doll Writes about Continuing and
Sharing Carnival Tradition Started by Black Women
by Anita Oubre
Preserving the unique Black New Orleans Mardi Gras tradition of the Baby Dolls is an honor and a very important task. For the past two years this writer has practiced the tradition of masking as a baby doll, engaging with other women who are equally as passionate about the practice and sharing the custom with those who appreciate it is a learning experience unlike any other.
I became intrigued with the tradition after spending an afternoon with Tee Eva and the late Antoinette K-Doe sometime before Hurricane Katrina. Antoinette was holding court at the Mother-in-Law lounge. She wore a sassy wig and wide-bottomed slacks; and she was friendly and welcoming. Even though our visit took place in a bar, I don’t recall being offered alcohol. It was all very proper, like visiting with your auntie. Looking back, I can still remember the gleam in the eyes of the elders as they described picking out material, planning their frilly dresses and coming out early on Mardi Gras morning,
The women eagerly interrupted one another recalling tales of yester year. They describe the tradition as a family affair celebrated and passed on by grandmothers, friends and neighbors. Close friends and relatives dressed up, showed up and showed out. They also stayed up late the night before planning for carnival day—frying chicken, soaking beans, icing down beer to be consumed after a day of gallivanting the streets and cutting a rug.
Fast forward the clock to 2015, I am a part of a group of women who dance and celebrate the second line tradition; and we are taking part in a Women in Music event. There are two Baby Dolls in the house that we share the stage with. After the performance, we make proper introductions and a date is made for the Baby Dolls to dance at a birthday party. Two months later I am invited to a coffee shop to discuss the possibility of donning my own lace and boots.
I have been masking as a Baby Doll ever since.
The group of Baby Dolls that I first joined tells that the history of dolls started in an area called Black Storyville around 1912. The women of Black Storyville were prostitutes working in the city’s other legal, but segregated red light district. Many experienced rough times. Their existences were harsh. Already disenfranchised simply because they were Black and female, they also suffered brutal Johns and abusive pimps that ripped them off. Many turned to drugs and alcohol to help them momentarily forget their woes. These women had no voice, no education and no hope. Legend says that a group decided to defy the odds on one Mardi Gras morning armed with what they did possess—song, dance and spirits of revelry. They banned together, donned little lacy dresses and garters, grabbed cigars and headed out onto the streets with their “raddy” walk. Such behavior was unheard of at the time. The thought of women parading in the streets was unprecedented. The idea of Black prostitutes—women who were more marginalized than most others—having the gumption to do it was unfathomable. These groundbreaking women were the very first to mask, a practice that was reserved for white men. Later, more “respectable” women joined them in masking. And the Baby Doll tradition was born.
Today there are over a dozen groups who mask as Baby Dolls. They are hired to dance at weddings, hold honor guard at funerals and show up to anything and everything in between. They can also be seen parading with their beautiful umbrellas and dancing at a number of festivals. Interestingly, a unique group has been born from the gathering of members from the different Baby Doll groups in the city. The Baby Doll Sisterhood was established in December 2016 to pay homage to some of the elders.
Since that first heartwarming night, the sisterhood now has regular monthly gatherings where they celebrate birthdays, go listen to live music and show up and show out at a number of events. More importantly special friendships have been formed. The dolls support one in another and rally together to address issues in the community and amongst themselves. Women come from all over the city—uptown and downtown and from all walks of life.
Many hold professional jobs. Some are entrepreneurs, and some are homemakers. With fear of the tradition being lost and the hopes that it does not vanish, today’s dolls are also are proudly teaching and handing down the tradition to their daughters and granddaughters. Passing down the artistry of this unique tradition is important so that they do not vanish or get lost in the ever changing landscape of the new New Orleans. Surely the dolls, this one included, mirror the strength, determination and fierce attitudes of the women that came before them and the women they pay homage to. My hope is for the Baby Dolls to remain synonymous with New Orleans as red beans and rice and as a red hot as jazz.