The Baby Dolls of New Orleans
Scholars and artists respond to the modern resurgence of the Baby Doll tradition
Contributions by Jennifer Atkins, Vashni Balleste, Mora J. Beauchamp-Byrd, Ron Bechet, Melanie Bratcher, Jerry Brock, Ann Bruce, Violet Harrington Bryan, Rachel Carrico, Sarah Anita Clunis, Phillip Colwart, Keith Duncan, Rob Florence, Pamela R. Franco, Daniele Gair, Meryt Harding, Megan Holt, DeriAnne Meilleur Honora, Marielle Jeanpierre, Ulrick Jean-Pierre, Jessica Marie Johnson, Karen La Beau, D. Lammie-Hanson, Karen Trahan Leathem, Charles Lovell, Annie Odell, Ruth Owens, Steve Prince, Nathan "Nu'Awlons Natescott" Haynes Scott, LaKisha Michelle Simmons, Tia L. Smith, Gailene McGhee St. Amand, and Kim Vaz-Deville
Since 2004, the Baby Doll Mardi Gras tradition in New Orleans has gone from an obscure, almost forgotten practice to a flourishing cultural force. The original Baby Dolls were groups of black women, and some men, in the early Jim Crow era who adopted New Orleans street masking tradition as a unique form of fun and self-expression against a backdrop of racial discrimination. Wearing short dresses, bloomers, bonnets, and garters with money tucked tight, they strutted, sang ribald songs, chanted, and danced on Mardi Gras Day and on St. Joseph feast night. Today's Baby Dolls continue the tradition of one of the first street women's masking and marching groups in the United States. They joyfully and unabashedly defy gender roles, claiming public space and proclaiming through their performance their right to social citizenship.
Essayists draw on interviews, theoretical perspectives, archival material, and historical assessments to describe women's cultural performances that take place on the streets of New Orleans. They recount the history and contemporary resurgence of the Baby Dolls while delving into the larger cultural meaning of the phenomenon. Over 140 color photographs and personal narratives of immersive experiences provide passionate testimony of the impact of the Baby Dolls on their audiences. Fifteen artists offer statements regarding their work documenting and inspired by the tradition as it stimulates their imagination to present a practice that revitalizes the spirit.
"Walking Raddy functions as a multi-faceted text that showcases the significant impact of the Baby Dolls, as well as the evolution, restoration, and preservation of an iconic tradition. As a multidisciplinary collection, it brings scholarly attention to an aspect of New Orleans and Mardi Gras carnival heritage that is often disregarded or overshadowed by male-dominated traditions. "- Grace D. Gipson, Black Perspectives
"Walking Raddy functions as a multi-faceted text that showcases the significant impact of the Baby Dolls, as well as the evolution, restoration, and preservation of an iconic tradition. "- AAIHS
"Walking Raddy thus comes as a much-needed study of how intersectional oppression has worked in New Orleans since at least 1912 (the agreed-upon start of the tradition) and of how black women (be they Afro-Creole matriarchs, prostitutes, or sassy entrepreneurs) have resisted their marginalization. While building on Vaz-Deville’s pioneering historical study of the Baby Dolls, it is more ambitious in scope in the sense that it integrates a contemporary approach to the tradition via interviews with its current practitioners, as well as responses to it by local artists. These voices make the book fundamentally transdisciplinary and polyphonic, a real community effort that says a lot about contemporary New Orleans social life. . . . The book is a visual and intellectual feast and provides a comprehensive survey of the Baby Doll performance style. From its complex genealogy to its choreographic, musical, and visual characteristics to its insertion in the social geography of the city, almost no stone is left unturned. "- Aurélie Godet, Université de Paris, France, Journal of Festive Studies
"Overall, Walking Raddy is a welcome introduction to the Baby Dolls, Black women who continue to express their freedom in a revived New Orleans tradition that is a testimony to the strong heritage of those “who made it through that water” of Hurricane Katrina. "- Michelle R. Scott, University of Maryland, Baltimore County, The Journal of African American History
"Oh, the priceless oral histories! The pictures, paintings, sculptures, and collages! Walking Raddy delivers history, context, and very-much-alive culture in a symphony of images and voices — gathering the past, way past, and yesterday in threads of female toughness and grace which stitch through race, fashion, freedom, tradition, change, social justice, and the unquenchable desire to define the female self for oneself by oneself. Walking Raddy offers a vivid peephole into the living fabric of New Orleans culture. Bravo to all the hands and hearts who made it. "- Eve Abrams, award-winning radio producer, audio documentarian, and educator whose work focuses on telling stories from her adopted hometown of New Orleans
"What a joy to see this collection that knits together stories and analyses of this tradition of women's masquerades in the New World carnivalesque. It also takes us back to an earlier time when masquerade performances were ordinary peoples' way of presenting themselves on the public stage, taking control of the streets, at least for a while. Congratulations to the editor and contributors for bringing this important collection to life. "- Rhoda Reddock, Trinidadian educator, social activist, and recipient of her country's Gold Medal for the Development of Women