SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
As we celebrate Black History Month this February, we turn to a lesser known chapter of African-American history, one that came long before the U.S. Civil Rights movement - baby dolls. But they weren't the kind little girls played with; they were part of the annual New Orleans Mardi Gras celebrations. Tina Antolini has the story.
TINA ANTOLINI, BYLINE: Just inside a room on the second floor of the Louisiana State Museum Presbytere, Dr. Kim Vaz points at large baby doll dress, big enough for a woman to wear. And actually, one did. It and the baby bottle next to it belonged to 85-year old Miriam Batiste Reed.
DR. KIM VAZ: And this is her costume. She designed it.
ANTOLINI: And the bottle, I would guess the bottle probably wasn't filled with milk.
VAZ: No. She always said you had to fill it with something, and, you know, and that something was of your choice.
ANTOLINI: The bottle and the dress are part of the new exhibition "They Call Me Baby Doll: A Mardi Gras Tradition."
VAZ: The baby dolls are a group of African-American men and women carnival maskers. They would dress up on Mardi Gras Day in short satin skirts, with bloomers, and they would have garters.
ANTOLINI: Dr. Vaz, who's a dean at Xavier University, says the Baby Dolls date back to 1912, when Jim Crow was the law of the land in the South. It all started in New Orleans' red light district, which, itself was divided along racial lines. You had the Storyville area for white customers where the sex industry was legal. Black customers had to go a few blocks away where prostitution was allowed but illegal.
VAZ: You know, another manifestation of how Jim Crow worked to disenfranchise black people, even in the most sordid of industries.
ANTOLINI: Between these two red light districts there was a kind of rivalry. One year the women in the black district heard that their counterparts in Storyville were going to mask for Mardi Gras. And they thought: we better come up with some good costumes ourselves.
VAZ: And they said let's just be baby dolls because that's what, you know, the men call us, they call us baby dolls, and let's be red hot.
ANTOLINI: Calling your beloved baby had just made its way into the popular lexicon, with songs like "Pretty Baby" written by a New Orleans native.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PRETTY BABY")
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: (Singing) Everyone loves the baby, that's why I'm in love with you, pretty baby, pretty baby...
ANTOLINI: But there was something subversive about black sex workers costuming this way.
VAZ: At that time, baby dolls were very rare and very hard to get. And so it had all that double meaning in it, because African-American women weren't considered precious and doll-like.
ANTOLINI: Just the fact that these prostitutes were masking and going out into the street at all was a big deal. Women just did not do that then. But as sex workers, these women were already taboo. So Dr. Vaz says they just kept piling on.
VAZ: They appropriated male behaviors. They would smoke cigars. They would fling money at men, and they would watch the men fall over themselves to get the money. And if you touched their money, if you went to touch their garter, they would hurt you.
ANTOLINI: They carried walking sticks they would use in their dances and to defend themselves. It was about fun. But Dr. Vaz, who's also written a new book about the baby dolls, says it was a kind of laughter to keep from crying.
VAZ: At that time, there was only one high school for African-Americans. Residential segregation was practiced, job discrimination was practiced, women didn't have the right to vote. In the one way that they could make a statement was through their dance and their dress and their song. It's when you've exhausted all your legal remedies that you have to use the culture to make a statement and express yourself.
ANTOLINI: They came up with their own dance step they called walking raddy. Pretty soon, women in more respectable neighborhoods started masking baby doll. But desegregation in the 1950s allowed black New Orleanians to do more on Mardi Gras. And then the I-10 interstate highway was built directly through the neighborhood where African-Americans gathered to celebrate carnival, disrupting many traditions. The baby dolls faded until several years ago.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)
ANTOLINI: On Mardi Gras day this week, one of the highlights of the Zulu parade was the Baby Doll Ladies. Dressed in royal blue rompers with ruffles and bows, they danced down the street to New Orleans' local style of hip-hop, called bounce.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: (Singing) Yes, just give it to me. Will you give it to me? Just give it to me.
ANTOLINI: The Baby Doll Ladies are the project of Mellisia White, who also co-curated the new exhibition with Dr. Vaz. White is a native New Orleanian and a choreographer, who'd just started her own dance company in 2005 when Hurricane Katrina hit. After the storm, she wanted to do something involving dance that celebrated New Orleans culture.
MELLISIA WHITE: We weren't necessarily trying to resurrect the times of 1912 in how we dress or how we look or how we present. If anything is resurrected, it doesn't exactly come back the same. 'Cause we're not a replica, we're a continuation of the baby doll practice.
ANTOLINI: White interviewed elders around New Orleans to learn about the tradition. She and her brother, who's a DJ, put together a look and a sound for the new baby dolls. And then they tested it out on Mardi Gras Day 2009, five years after Katrina.
WHITE: And, you know, when they saw us on the route, like some of the things I kept hearing like here come the new baby dolls. The baby dolls are back. I literally could see in people's eyes for the first time for my own self since Katrina a glimpse of some kind of hope, like for a new New Orleans.
ANTOLINI: History is not just in the past in New Orleans. It's dancing down the street right next to you, maybe wearing bloomers and a bonnet. For NPR News, I'm Tina Antolini.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Singing) Mardi Gras wobble, Mardi Gras wobble, down in New Orleans.
SIMON: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.