The Missing Link between Congo Square and the Mardi Gras Indians? The Anonymous Story of ‘The Singing Girl of New Orleans’ (1849)

Jeroen Dewulf | Department of German & Dutch Studies | Louisiana History, 2019

People who visit Congo Square will find a sign there that informs visitors about the importance of this iconic place to New Orleans’ history. The sign also refers to the Mardi Gras Indians, while making the claim that this and other African-American performance traditions in the Crescent City developed out of the dances that once used to take place on Sundays at Congo Square. While it is true that some archival sources about Congo Square do in their descriptions of the Congo dance (vaguely) recall the performances of the Mardi Gras Indians, fact is that not a single document dating back to the era before abolition makes a reference to their most characteristic feature: the abundant use of feathers. This is what makes the discovery of the anonymously published story “The Singing Girl of New Orleans” so special. For the first time, we now have a historical source at our disposal that explicitly mentions the presence on Congo Square of a dancer whose entire body was covered with so many feathers that he reminded the (white) spectator of a chanticleer (a rooster) and another dancer who was decorated with an abundance of peacock plumes. Moreover, the story also refers to a dancer wearing enormous horns, a feature that is characteristic to the so-called “wild man” in Mardi Gras Indian gangs, whose task it is to keep the audience at a distance.