Kim Marie Vaz
Kim Marie Vaz is associate dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and professor of education at Xavier University of Louisiana. Her area of research is the use of expressive arts as a response to large-group social trauma.
1:15 p.m. to 1:45 p.m.
The “Baby Dolls”: Breaking the Race and Gender
Barriers of the New Orleans Mardi Gras Tradition
2 p.m. to 2:45 p.m.
The "Baby Dolls": Breaking the Race and Gender Barriers of the New Orleans Mardi Gras Tradition
One of the first women’s organizations to mask and perform during Mardi Gras, the Million Dollar Baby Dolls redefined the New Orleans carnival tradition. Tracing their origins from Storyville-era brothels and dance halls to their reemergence in post-Katrina New Orleans, author Kim Marie Vaz uncovers the fascinating history of the “raddy-walking, shake-dancing, cigar-smoking, money-flinging” ladies who strutted their way into a predominantly male establishment.
The Baby Dolls formed around 1912 as an organization of African-American women who used their profits from working in New Orleans’s red light district to compete with other black prostitutes on Mardi Gras. Part of this event involved the tradition of masking, in which carnival groups create a collective identity through costuming. Their baby doll costumes—short satin dresses, bonnets and stockings with garters—set against a bold and provocative public behavior not only exploited stereotypes but empowered and made visible an otherwise marginalized female demographic.
Over time, different neighborhoods adopted the Baby Doll tradition, stirring the creative imagination of black women and men throughout New Orleans, from the downtown Tremé area to the uptown community of Mahalia Jackson. Vaz follows the Baby Doll phenomenon through 100 years with photos, articles and interviews. She concludes with the birth of contemporary groups, emphasizing the organizations’ crucial contribution to Louisiana’s cultural history.
What is the most interesting thing readers can learn from your book The “Baby Dolls”: Breaking the Race and Gender Barriers of the New Orleans Mardi Gras Tradition?
The first group of women who dressed up as “Baby Dolls” were out to have a good time and to dominate the Mardi Gras street scene with their costumes, their fine legs, their sensual dancing, their bawdy chanting and their carefree spirit. Though they were in no way being political, their very acts of role reversals helped to display and reveal just how restrictive the social and political realities were for women. In their time circa 1912, for a woman to be “respectable” she would have had to wear long skirts, never smoke, pretend to have no interest in sex, to put others first, especially in the domestic arena and to be supported by a working man. The women who started this tradition did none of that. They loved to show off their bodies, to use their bodies to entertain others and thus call attention to themselves. They wore short skirts when the norms said to wear long ones. They smoked cigars in public at a time when women were not supposed to smoke at all. The flung money at men, income they had earned from their own labor, in a time when men gave money to women either supporting them as wives or paying for their sexual services and entertainment in the brothels and dance halls. At a time when upper-class men had appropriated masking as legitimate, only for themselves on Carnival, they dared to go out on the public streets, taking advantage of the African American tradition of second-line parading to give themselves a stage in which to showcase their talents.
What motivated you to tell this story?
As a women’s studies scholar, I have long been interested in studying women who are insurgent in their own communities and especially in New Orleans. Whether it is Henriette DeLille defying the laws that forbade teaching slaves to read or Katharine Drexel, buying property against the will of local Whites with the intended use to create an institution to teach African Americans, I want to tell the stories of women’s examples of pushing back on social injustice. The Baby Doll tradition is a unique story about women integrating themselves into street masking on Mardi Gras at a time when social customs frowned on them wearing costumes. And as the least respected members of New Orleans society, they set an example of how to embrace that outsider status and create their own living traditions.
How do you think this story resonates with Louisiana (culture, readers, history, Louisianans, etc.)?
People come from all over the world to learn about the unique culture of New Orleans. Indigenous African American traditions are even less well known and certainly, not well understood. Black Storyville, Louis Armstrong, dance and performance, family and community connections are all intertwined in the story of the Baby Dolls. The Baby Dolls provides a way to look at the complexities of black life and the way culture is used to mitigate pain and to bring joy to the collective.
Why is this topic interesting to you? What would you like people to learn about this topic?
African American women in New Orleans have a rich history and have made remarkable contributions to the development of the city. Yet, their stories are rarely told. I see it as my mission to make this history known and accessible to a wide audience. I also hope to encourage new scholars to incorporate black women into their research on New Orleans. New Orleans jazz history leaves women out almost completely, yet they had a presence and influence. Mardi Gras research suffers from the same lack of inclusion of women’s crucial roles. My hope is that readers will see working class black women’s lives in a new context. Through my book, I want them to learn an alternative interpretation about who these people were and are who mask as baby dolls. It is a perspective that challenges their portrayal as popularized in the book, Gumbo Ya Ya: Louisiana's Folktales by Lyle Saxon and his colleagues and repeated in scholarly texts without a critical perspective I want readers to develop empathy for black working class women by emphasizing what is common to these women and to the readers. What is the common human struggle and the aspiration that each person has: the desire to “be somebody” that people recognize and admire. The Baby Doll masking tradition, allowed this to happen for some New Orleans residents.
What excites you about the festival?
I am honored to be part of the literary heritage of our state and I want to soak in as much as I can. So I look forward to the ways in which authors will bring their subjects to life and influence us with their views.
I am looking forward to the author’s party. Getting to know others who write about Louisiana brings the heritage right into the present moment. The authors are as interesting as what they write about and it helps to have a network of experts passionate about the area to talk to and to help my thinking expand. These conversations enrich and extend my thinking about how New Orleans and Louisiana culture forms and re-forms itself in endlessly creative ways.
I am looking forward to hearing from those who come to my presentation their memories of Carnival.
What should people look forward to by coming to your presentation at the festival?
Nothing brings to life a cultural practice like photographs. I will share some images that are in not in the book and some from different time periods to highlight how the practice changed over time. The photos and a short video clip bring to life the spirit of fun and play that constitute the practice of masking. Joseph Lee, the inventor of the playground movement, believed that, when adults engaged in play, they were renewing their lives. He came to the conclusion that White culture could learn from the tendency in Black culture of “never los[ing] hope for the future nor a sense of joy of living.” In spite of the suffocating discrimination, Black New Orleanians had managed to build play into their lives. The community had numerous forms of celebrating and Carnival, or as the locals called it, “Old Fools Day,” was a major one in which a person could mask as anything he or she wanted to be. A vitality was built into everyday Black life. The Baby Dolls danced and innovated on the vital elements in Black New Orleans culture. Audience members will catch this infectious spirit of fun.
Is there anything you’d like to add?
The Baby Dolls: Breaking the Race and Gender Barriers of the New Orleans Mardi Gras Tradition tells the story of one of the nation’s first street masking women’s groups. Beth Herstein in New Orleans Living Magazine wrote that "the image—black women, mostly prostitutes, dressed as baby dolls, dancing and singing bawdy songs in segregated New Orleans—at first seems to be one of self-denigration. However, in “The Baby Dolls: Breaking the Race and Gender Barriers of the New Orleans Mardi Gras Tradition” (Louisiana State University Press), Kim Marie Vaz, persuasively argues that the Baby Dolls, including the Million Dollar Baby Dolls from Black Storyville, subverted the status quo, asserted the right of black women to be part of the party and in so doing, inspired future generations of black women in New Orleans to assert themselves."
"I love when something so different presents itself to scholars as objects for study. Carnival in New Orleans is not commonly understood as the complex cultural phenomenon it is–it’s so much more than merely the best street party in the world. Kim Vaz’s unpacking of this gendered and dissident tradition contributes to a valuable and nuanced understanding of masking, New Orleans, dancing in the streets, and bringing high what was low, and low what was high." Sandy Quinn, Ph.D., Professor of Sociology and Criminal Justice, Women's Studies, and Irish Studies at St. Ambrose University.
Kim Vaz’s "The Baby Dolls: Breaking the Race & Gender Barriers of the New Orleans Mardi Gras Tradition" is written “with clarity and honesty and a thoughtful restraint. Kim has written about how Storyville worked on the upriver side of Canal Street and why the first Baby Doll maskers came from there. She’s dealt with a complex cultural tradition in wise and sensitive ways. If you love New Orleans, you’ll appreciate this book." Ellen Blue is the Mouzon Biggs Jr. Professor of the History of Christianity and United Methodist Studies at Phillips Theological Seminary in Tulsa, Oklahoma. She is the author of St. Mark’s and the Social Gospel: Methodist Women and Civil Rights in New Orleans, 1895-1965 (University of Tennessee Press, 2011). She teaches and writes about women’s issues and the post-Katrina church in New Orleans.
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