There were only three of us in the Mardi Gras museum – me and two costume designers on tour with a circus from Brooklyn. I’d seen about as much of Mobile, Alabama, as I could stand in the midday heat: the cemetery full of yellow fever victims, the State Street Zion Church, set up by slaves ejected from mainstream Methodist services in the 1820s.
I wanted to know more about the purple beads that I’d seen slung in the trees in New Orleans years earlier, a full three months after Mardi Gras had ended: the residue of a wild week in which, as I understood it, frat boys joined outrageous queens and black jazz players in a binge of Green Hurricane cocktails. This deliciously debauched and liberal celebration of all human life apparently started here in Alabama – which struck me as strange, somehow. A tiny old lady led us into a large room where a carnival float the shape of a dragon stood against the wall. The parades are in January, she said, but really, the festival went on all year and there was a party that night.
Mardi Gras arrived with French settlers in 1703, but in Mobile they like to start the story with Michael Krafft, a one-eyed cotton broker who got drunk with friends on New Year’s Eve in 1830 and raided Partridge Hardware Store, seizing hoes and forks and marauding through the streets to the mayor’s house, where he was invited in for breakfast. Krafft formed the first society – or “mystic order” – to lead a parade around the city. Other cotton workers set up a rival group. Then more emerged, tied up with the city’s businesses, with names like medieval guilds: the Knights of Revelry, the Maids of Mirth.
There are more than 40 mystic societies in Mobile today. The social and economic lives of powerful local families revolve around them, though their influence remains hard to assess because membership is secret – as with the Masons. Some gatherings are masked.
We pass photos of families from the 1920s decked out in Charles II wigs, tights and ballet shoes. Every year, a young man is elected as King Felix III, the carnival ruler, with an appropriate girl as his queen. They are graduate age, not generally a couple, and from “good families”, our host says. The elaborate trains they wear in the parade can cost thousands of dollars apiece. On video screens, we see the esteemed young monarchs presented at “courts” (the country club, the civic centre), draped in fur and satin, picking their way through tough, unspoken codes of conduct.
They are all white. Mobile has a segregated Mardi Gras. The black group was set up in 1938 as the Colored Carnival Association. We ask why the two events remain separate in 2015. Our host explains that this is the way it has always been. “The black community want it that way,” she says.
There’s a small display dedicated to the Comic Cowboys, an order who ride behind the posh floats bearing irreverent banners: a cartoon of a moustachioed gay man pissing a rainbow, a caricature of the first openly gay (and black) NFL player, with the slogan “Cowboys cut Michael Sam – not because he’s gay, because he sucks”.
“Those guys are pretty cheeky,” our host says.
There has been a lot of talk, after the shootings in Charleston, South Carolina, about Southern ways, Southern attitudes and the shadows they cast. One weekday afternoon in Mobile tells you things are still done differently here. At night, I walk back past the museum to find its community life in full swing. The open windows cast pools of light on the garden, where very young, very smart white boys in patent leather shoes, chinos and short-sleeved shirts are gathering – future King Felixes, some of them.