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Sting Like a Bee

Issue 118, Fall 2022

Photo of Ms. Cinnamon Black by Pableaux Johnson

Resa “Cinnamon Black” Bazile is seemingly everywhere, and yet difficult to track down. After some digging, I found Bazile on a Tuesday afternoon in February at the desk of the New Orleans Historic Voodoo Museum, chatting with tourists who had wandered in off Dumaine Street in the French Quarter. She wore a matching cerulean blue skirt and head wrap, and a ruffled African print top. Faux eyelashes, beaded hoops, and a stack of necklaces and onyx rings completed the look. When Bazile learned that it was one visitor’s birthday, she insisted on performing a candle-lighting ceremony to bring good luck, asking the woman’s partner to film while we all sang “Happy Birthday” several times over until she blew out the candle. Bazile works two days a week at the museum. She had started there back in 1980 after winning a Marie Laveau lookalike contest, and so, when I couldn’t find her anywhere else, I’d call the front desk and talk to her there. (Bazile has a cell phone. It just proved to not be the most effective tool for getting in touch.)

As people came in and out of the ramshackle lobby, she answered the phone, ribbed guests, and helped them pick out voodoo dolls and other trinkets. She showed off the neck patch she was sewing for her Indian suit: rows of cowrie shells and faux pearls were nestled amid gold rickrack. Though she preps for Mardi Gras throughout the year, it picks up in the weeks following Twelfth Night, and she said her hands have been busy sewing in a race to finish. “You can take a photo,” she said, holding up the intricate piece, “but you can’t show anyone.” The power of an Indian’s suit lies in her reveal in the battle for “pretty.”

That day, Bazile was a voodoo priestess, but she lives a number of different lives that take her all over the city. She’s also a baby doll and a Black masking Indian queen, and she appears in films and productions, often as a priestess. These branching paths, she said, have taken over her house: “One room is voodoo, one room is baby dolls, one room is Indians.” Of course, these titles have little context or meaning beyond New Orleans, and Bazile’s place in the universe is inextricably bound to a world that doesn’t always abide by time or technology. Which is a long way of telling you that I often had a hard time hunting her down.

The next time I found her was on Florida Avenue along the canal in the Lower Ninth Ward, a week and change before Mardi Gras. Parked outside of an abandoned community center, I called her wondering if I had the wrong address. She begrudgingly reoriented me, and couldn’t promise that she had much time to talk. She was at Victor Harris’s house, the big chief of the Spirit of Fi Yi Yi and the Mandingo Warriors, where the tribe was sewing against the clock. She greeted me out front alongside spy boy—the person who keeps watch for the big chief—Albert Polite, who stood sentry at the door. He informed me that I was not to talk to Chief Victor Harris. Bazile led me down a set of stairs while Polite called out, “Fire in the hole!” to indicate our entrance. At a work table sat Jack Robertson, the Warriors’ designer. He was mulling over a swatch of African print and a row of feathers which would become a headpiece for one of the tribe’s young warriors. The suits are spiritual, and Harris’s designs come to him in visions. For many Indians, they take the entire year to make, the construction undertaken in secret so that no other tribe will know what’s in store. Bazile settled onto a stool, dreads swinging around her shoulders, looped through with gold rings. It was the rare moment when she appeared not in costume, unguarded, not performing.

That day, Bazile was an Indian. If you don’t live here, it’s possible you’ve never heard of Black Indians or Mardi Gras Indians—terms that vary depending on which tribe or member you ask—but they are one of America’s most majestic and dramatic examples of extremely local, longstanding folk tradition. On Mardi Gras day, dozens of tribes emerge on the streets of their respective neighborhoods, dressed in suits made of intricate beadwork and layers of feathers. They’re often described as three-dimensional, sculptural in their grandiosity of scale. Some suits can weigh over 150 pounds and tower four feet above their wearer’s head. (In one photo I unearthed in the Historic New Orleans Collection from 1984, a wildman’s bonnet contained an enclosure housing a live parakeet.) But the Indians also come out on St. Joseph’s night, which was historically an evening of violent battles between the tribes; since Big Chief Allison “Tootie” Montana of the Yellow Pocahontas called for peace in the 1960s, the battles have become more symbolic, with chiefs parading to see who is the prettiest. The Indians also come out on Super Sunday in the most epic of New Orleans’s Second Line parades. Bazile explained that the suits they’d been working on all year would be worn on all three occasions. Her suit, a mass of white feathers and black and gold fringe, was made up of dozens of patches (patches are the individual pieces that compose a suit) and had taken her months to sew.

The tradition of African Americans masking in the iconography of Native American people has been around since the mid-nineteenth century, derived from a gumbo of origins, including Wild West shows that passed through the city in the 1880s, the mutual aid that Blacks and native people provided one another before and after the Civil War, and the ancient ritual of masking in West and Central African cultures. The tribes are organized in a male-dominated hierarchy that flows downward from a big chief—spy boy, flag boy, wildman—with the queen often seen as a kind of atmospheric accessory to the chief. It’s a role that’s evolving in some tribes with more codified responsibilities, and in Bazile’s case was forged by the queen that came before her, Kim “Cutie” Boutte.

When Boutte, at age fifty-five, died in 2020, killed by a stray bullet in a retaliative shooting, Bazile, who had been second queen, became the big queen. It’s clear the tribe is still devastated by this loss, and several times throughout our conversations, Bazile expressed missing dancing next to Boutte in the streets. “That’s my big queen,” she would say, in present tense, as if Boutte had simply transubstantiated. “She was remarkable. She took care of all the children. She was small but she sting like a bee,” said Bazile. Boutte became a little queen when she was five, ascending to big queen and eventually became recognized all over the city as one of her era’s culture bearers.

“You don’t pick the tribe. The tribe picks you,” said Bazile, who has been in the Spirit of Fi Yi Yi for over twenty years. “You have to be invited into it. You have to be a part of a family, a part of the bloodline. You can’t just put on the suit or you’re fake. Like a fake Gucci.” Some members are born into the tribe, like Bazile’s grandchildren, while others are invited based on kinship and understanding.

While Bazile spoke, Big Chief Victor Harris appeared in the sewing den, wearing a red skull cap. He arranged some of his patches on the table, and when Bazile disappeared upstairs for a moment, began talking about his suit, his calling to the tribe, what it feels like when the Spirit takes over, and the meaning of a queen to the Warriors. “A big queen should be beside the chief at all times,” Harris said. “Not behind, beside.”

When Bazile reappeared, she brought prepared plates of fried fish, stuffed crab, and egg rolls for Robertson and Harris. “What does a queen do? What I’m doing right now,” she said laughing. “It’s like a support system; you make sure the tribe has what they need. You look after the children, work with the children so they know what to do.” Her own grandchildren are part of the tribe, the boys looking up to the big chief, playing Indian as soon as they can run.

The next time I tracked Bazile down was on Mardi Gras morning, at Kermit’s Tremé Mother-in-Law Lounge, a New Orleans institution founded by Ernie K-Doe back in 1994. The music club was taken over by local legend trumpet player Kermit Ruffins in 2014, and presides as a mainstay of community and gathering in the Tremé. Donning a white, ruffled dress, smocked with silver sequins, and matching bonnet, Bazile stood outside, posing for photos with her group, the Tremé Million Dollar Baby Dolls, awaiting a local news crew’s lenses. She twirled a lacy white parasol, and a Black doll dangled from her shoulder. This morning, she was a baby doll, the most elusive of the city’s maskers.

“It used to be that the baby dolls only came out once, maybe twice a year. It used to be so special,” Bazile said some weeks later over coffee. “But now it’s once a month or so.” Though still a lesser-known tradition, the baby dolls are ever more visible around the city, with groups emerging at Second Lines and neighborhood festivals. The New York Times recently featured a short documentary by filmmaker Vashni Korin on the dolls called You Can’t Stop Spirit. “Like with any folk culture, these things are not recorded and put in archives,” said Kim Vaz-Deville, professor at Xavier University and author of The “Baby Dolls”: Breaking the Race and Gender Barriers of the New Orleans Mardi Gras Tradition.

Of course, the origins of dolls are manifold, with one story tracing the tradition back to a group of friends and family in the Tremé neighborhood in the early twentieth century who were influenced by the fashions of vaudeville and began dressing in satin dresses and bloomers to evoke the look of a child’s baby doll. Another story pins the origins to Storyville’s red light district sex workers who satirized the idea of dressing like a little girl, wearing garter belts and throwing money at male onlookers as they paraded through the streets. (Apart from New Orleans, in Trinidad, there is record of women dressing as dolls and/or carrying dolls and shaming men into giving them money.) Regardless of origin, dressing as a baby doll and dancing through the streets, above all, provided agency to Black women who were historically disallowed from participating formally in Mardi Gras; up until the 1960s, official parading, for the most part, was the territory of wealthy, white Uptown men whose exclusive krewes dominated the mainstream depiction of the holiday. Dressing as a baby doll provided visibility on a holiday where women, let alone Black women, were relegated to the literal sidelines.

Bazile recalls the first time she saw a baby doll. She was six or seven with her grandmother in the Calliope Projects and saw the dolls coming down the street toward Rose Tavern. They were buckjumping (the rapid, rhythmic dance step associated with New Orleans Second Lines) and pulling feather boas between their legs. Her grandmother grabbed her and tried to cover her eyes, but the image was etched into Bazile’s consciousness; she wanted to be a doll. Around the age of twelve, she and her friends started their own doll group under the guise of Cabbage Patch Dolls, so her grandmother couldn’t read her real intentions. Years later, as a young mother, she was hanging around with some of the Tremé’s older women—including Lois Andrews (Trombone Shorty’s mother), Merline Kimble, and Antoinette K-Doe—listening to their stories, when the topic of baby dolls came up. Maybe it was time to bring them back. The tradition had died out, which Vaz-Deville explained was, in part, a product of the civil rights movement, when the importance of dignity—in profession, appearance, and public behavior—became paramount in pushing integration. “Folk cultures weren’t seen as respectable,” said Vaz-Deville.

When Bazile heard the Tremé women talking about the dolls, she perked up. They called upon Mariam Batiste Reed in the Sixth Ward to hear about her mother Alma, who had masked as a baby doll, and eventually the Gold Digger Baby Dolls and the Ernie K-Doe Baby Dolls were born. Bazile joined the former, but would run a renegade—join other groups—when she could. After Hurricane Katrina, she started her own group, the Tremé Million Dollar Baby Dolls, an homage to the Million Dollar Baby Dolls, one of the earliest known groups from the 1910s.

Bazile’s aim in helping revive the dolls, of which there are about seventy-five today by Vaz-Deville’s estimation, is intertwined with the idea of women as a representative of a culture and a community. She acknowledges the role’s historic association with sex work, but disavows it as a contemporary thread. Today, the role is one of embodiment and power, rebutting the negative stigma of legend. “When you are a baby doll, you’re doing a reenactment. They are women who have their own cars, women who have their own jobs. Women who are mothers, who are caretakers of the elderly, women who people seek out to ask questions,” she said. Whereas some modern-day dolls will appear in short shorts and bustiers, the dolls that Bazile claims are dressed in ruffled skirts and bonnets, carrying parasols, baby bottles, and pacifiers. They do the dance of the jazz. “You don’t show your breasts, you don’t wear high heels because you don’t miss that with a baby.” Their style of dance may change depending on the audience; Mardi Gras day is a lively two-step on account of being a family event, while other parades and appearances might allow for more provocation.

On Mardi Gras morning, she led the dolls out under the Claiborne Underpass with a brass band following behind, echoing off of concrete and cars. A small crowd followed, and as they moved through the Tremé, people stopped to watch. At one intersection, the Cheyenne Hunters tribe, dressed in peachy pink feathers, began to trail behind, entranced by the jovial women in satin, swinging parasols and shuffling along.

At last the dolls reached the temporary home of the Backstreet Cultural Museum, a hub started by the late Sylvester Francis, dedicated to preserving Indian culture. The Mandingo Warriors waited there for Bazile, who would quickly change suits and join them as queen.

But the transition didn’t go as planned. In an unexpected turn, the Warriors left without her and she had to catch up a couple of blocks away, where they were facing off with Black Feather, a tribe from the Tremé. When I sat down with Bazile some weeks later, she told me it was a test. “The men want us to believe we don’t have power, but we do,” she said. The power, as she explained, is in caretaking, guiding the children into their understanding of the culture, and supporting the chief in his work, a role that seems, in some ways, counter to the autonomy portrayed in the culture of the dolls.

When I ask Bazile what it’s like transitioning from a tradition that is entirely about women forging a path of visibility and power to one that is dictated by male energy, often performed as a show of strength, she doesn’t hesitate to explain its symbolism: “It’s another lesson to be learned: how to be in a male-dominated society when you’re a powerful woman,” she said, leaving it at that. Bazile has considered that it might be time to transition away from the dolls to keep up with her duties as a queen. But in seeing the thrall she holds over people, in her white ruffles and bejeweled boots, it’s difficult to imagine that she could ever fully let this life go.

The final time I see Bazile is on Esplanade on a brilliant April day the week of Jazz Fest. She’s just come from a performance and is dressed in black and brown tribal print, ceremonial white paint dashed and dotted around her eyebrows and down the bridge of her nose. Again, she’s a voodoo priestess, neck swathed in cowrie shells and beads, fingers jangling with silver rings. She orders a decadent praline-flavored iced coffee topped with a mountain of whipped cream. She commands the attention of everyone she walks past. One woman stops her, says she recognizes her as the host of a live TV show from back in the 1980s in which Kermit Ruffins was her house band.

She tells me about how she got her stage name, Cinnamon Black, from the late Charles Gandolfo, who founded the New Orleans Historic Voodoo Museum. She was a twin, she tells me, but her sister died at birth. She talks about the idea of the Marassa Jumeaux, the divine twins of voodoo, and how her name “Resa” echoes the term. We talk about the nature of transition, the fact that it’s inevitable. “Everything must change. Nothing stays the same,” she said, a chorus she’s sung in conversations before. I ask if she’s considered what she said about leaving the dolls. “Baby dolls are always going to be a part of my spirit and my soul, but now that I’ve accepted this big responsibility it’s going to require more of my time and a hundred percent of my attention.” But she also talks about her first days in the dolls, dancing through the streets past porches where older women who remembered the dolls from decades before would stand up and wave at them, bewitched by their return.

“My dream has come true. My dream is to see baby dolls all over. There are so many baby dolls I can’t even count them anymore,” she said. “When I leave, I’d like to leave them with a story. Everything in life has instructions. Some of us come with them inside of us and some of us don’t. Birds came with instructions how to fly. Trees came with instructions how to grow leaves.”

As the sun wanes on the avenue, I pull up a few photos that my friend the photographer Pableaux Johnson has taken of her over the years. The final one shows Bazile walking the route on Super Sunday, her Indian suit glittering. She is magnificent, carrying the weight of her creation through the streets. When she sees it, she is full of delight, “Oh! Who is she? I would like to know her. Can I meet her?” Bazile, in this moment, is not a priestess or an Indian or a baby doll, but a child again, stunned at the wonder that such a creature could exist.

Leslie Pariseau

Leslie Pariseau is a writer and editor in New Orleans. She is a co-founder and features editor at PUNCH, and has written for the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, GQ, the Ringer, the Intercept, and Jacobin, among others. Pariseau holds an MFA in fiction from Hunter College.