The National Library is currently displaying a selection of 50 books on the theme of masks and carnival on the ground floor of the Reading Room. The books cover multiple geographic areas and include the masquerades of the winter celebrations. While many people are familiar with the infamous Rio and Venice carnivals, only few know about Moko Jumbies (stilts walkers), dancing in the streets of Trinidad and Tobago, or the Notting Hill Carnival in London, taking place in August.
Among the selection of works on display is Smith’s Unveiling the Muse, which covers another historically important carnival, one that was imported from France to the American continent: French settlers brought the celebration of Mardi Gras to New Orleans. The first parade is thought to have been the procession of 1837. New Orleans stages lots of carnival parades, that are organized all year long by groups called “krewes”, such as the gay Krewe of Yuga, which was founded in 1958. Moreover, cross-dressing by both sexes has been a long tradition of Mardi Gras. In 1857, “two women were arrested for being dressed in masculine apparel and suffering themselves to be carried away beyond the boundaries of even Mardi Gras propriety and license.”
In the 1950s, despite senator McCarthy’s use of homosexuals as scapegoats for the Cold War, gay bars were tolerated in the French quarter of New Orleans and the most flamboyant costumes paraded around on Shrove Tuesday. Over the years, as the author of this beautifully illustrated book states, “the history of gay carnival has been salvaged from the maw of time and triumphantly declares itself in bold legitimacy.”