On Saturday, Luke and I went to the Bud Billiken Parade in South Chicago. It has been almost a year since we moved here — the anniversary of the day we left New Orleans in the stupid-big moving truck and ate overpriced Indian food outside of Memphis and almost stabbed each other in the face trying to find street parking at 11 p.m. will be on August 24. Since then, we got cats, we built shelves (Luke built shelves; I complimented the shelves), and we chose a favorite taco place. It has been a good year; way better than I imagined.
But Saturday was a cake-taking day of sorts; one of the best days of the entire year. It was muggy and hot — New Orleans weather inside and out. We rode the red line to 47th Street and walked a half mile to Martin Luther King Boulevard, where things looked a little like Mardi Gras, but different.
The street was shut down, and that was like Mardi Gras; people were grilling on the neutral ground, and that was like Mardi Gras (only, it wasn’t called “the neutral ground,” it was called “the grass”). The marching bands were loud and brassy and impressive, and that was like Mardi Gras. It was hotter than Mardi Gras usually is, and so I felt more sympathy for the kids who had to wear full marching regalia; wool-nylon coats and sparkling slacks and mile-high hats all while carrying a trombone. And it was harder (it was impossible) to cross from one side of the street to the other; there were even more police officers than there are in the Quarter at Bacchus; and, uh, the floats sucked.*
But the Bud Billiken Parade is not Mardi Gras. It is the Bud Billiken Parade! It’s its own thing. We walked along Martin Luther King Boulevard into Washington Park and found the best place to stand: across the street from a woman in an official-seeming tent who spoke enthusiastically into a microphone nonstop. Some of the participants in the parade were just small groups of kids in matching t-shirts. The woman in the tent — wearing a pied costume with ample sleeves — would say, “Oh! Look! It’s YOU guys! Now who are you guys?” Someone in the group would walk up to the woman and shout something at her, and she’d say, “Oh! You’re the Girls Who Read Club! Well you guys do some good work; yes you do. Aren’t you something special. God bless you!” She must have done this for six hours, because this parade lasted at least six hours.
I had never heard of the Bud Billiken Parade before last week, when I read about it in the newspaper. I feel kind of ashamed: It’s the largest African American parade in the country, and it's meant to be a celebration of education. (It’s held annually to kick off the new school year.) There’s a big picnic element to the whole thing: lots of families bring grills to the park and watch the parade while eating red hot dogs. Politicians march in the parade, shamelessly handing out swag to sway potential voters in November. (Let me just say: This tactic worked on me. It was hot out there. I felt that any politician willing to smile and wave for that long in the scorching sun had rightly earned my vote. And this is what is wrong with politics.)
If New Orleans is all about elaborate floats and brass bands, Chicago is all about dance teams. There were So. Many. Dance. Teams. The dance teams were unbelievable. First of all: the costumes. One team — with probably 300 kids on it — wore head-to-toe shimmery Captain America bodysuits made out of a fabric that definitely did not breathe. (The boys on that team — and yes, there were a LOT of boys — wore a version of this costume that had sewn-in muscles.) Another team wore blonde Sia wigs and fuchsia tutus. There was a group with sequined crop-tops and bottoms that were half-pants-half-shorts. And then there was the actual dancing, which was uniformly jaw-dropping. The dance teams had girls who were as young as four years old, with other members as old as seventeen. Every single one of them had thighs of steel. I have been doing squats regularly for going-on a decade now, and I would literally turn to jelly if you asked me to shake my hips three inches above the ground like that.
When we got home, Luke said he’d cried at the parade. Why? Because, “Oh, you know. Some of the dance teams. They were just so … people were so happy."
And that’s what it is about parades that makes them all kind of them same: if the parade is any good, the people are so happy. Even when the world is too bleak to bear; even when it’s difficult to get out of bed in the morning because that’s how fucked up everything is, there are still parades. I don't mean to get all Pollyanna on you here. There’s nothing wrong with you if you can’t see enough good in the world to show up to a parade. But more than a million people on the South side of Chicago — where the rate of gun violence is higher than almost anywhere else in the country — showed up to a parade on Saturday.
In an interview with DNA Info, a woman named Camiel Brookins said, “People were a little afraid to come out this year, but it’s still a good thing for us to have. The kids look forward to it and call us up to remind us that we have to go."
In the same article, Pamela Brooks, who has gone to the parade for the past 60 years (!!!) said, “It’s changed, but I never miss it, no matter what."
*At one point, Luke and I walked alongside the parade into the park, and we were stuck next to the "Metro PCS" "float" — a trailer with a huge advertisement on the side and a wannabe radio DJ shouting, "We care about kids at Metro PCS! Free haircuts! Free school supplies! Free food! All for the children! Buy a phone!"