On the morning of Mardi Gras, before the first light of dawn, dozens of skeletons flood the streets of the 6th Ward neighborhood of Tremé in New Orleans. For 200 years, its residents have awakened on the first day of the carnival to the clattering of bones and oversized skulls. Embodying the undead is the Northside Skull and Bones Gang, comprised of descendants of Native Americans and slaves. Its mission: To warn local teenagers of violence and gunplay.
“When you’re a young person living in this environment, you have a choice that you have to make—to steer clear of it or get caught up directly in it. It’s a school of hard knocks,” says Bruce “Sunpie” Barnes, chief of the Skull and Bones gang, in Victoria Rivera’s short documentary, Skull + Bone. “It’s very hard for black people in this country to live, exist, and survive in any kind of peaceful way.”
Barnes says that in addition to serving an educational purpose for the community’s disadvantaged youth, the gang helps keep ancient African traditions alive. It was founded on the spirit of resistance; for many years, African-Americans were not allowed to march in the Mardi Gras parades, so the Skull and Bones gang “became a way to survive and pass messages on to the next generation.”
“The real Mardi Gras is outside of the French Quarter, on every street corner of the city and its neighborhoods,” Rivera told The Atlantic. “There is an air of celebration, love, and respect for community that I’ve never seen elsewhere.”
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