Mardi Gras in New Orleans – New Cause for the Fight Over Blackface?
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Photo: A member of the Krewe of Zulu marches during their parade Mardi Gras day in New Orleans, Tuesday, Feb. 13, 2018 / AP Photo

Mardi Gras in New Orleans – New Cause for the Fight Over Blackface?


New Orleans’ widely recognized Zulu Social Aid & Pleasure Club says its tradition of using black makeup for its Mardi Gras float riders is not the same as blackface, a controversy that has embroiled officials nationwide.

“They are the modern-day minstrels”

Every Mardi Gras Day, Zulu marchers and riders paint their faces black – not only Zulu’s African-American members – before they hit the streets. This practice is as old as the organization, which first paraded more than a century ago, but this year, just in the weeks since photos depicting a person in blackface were discovered on the medical school yearbook page of Virginia Governor Ralph Northam, the national conversation about blackface has intensified.

A photograph from the 1984 medical school yearbook page of Mr. Northam showing a person dressed as a member of the Ku Klux Klan and another wearing blackface / Eastern Virginia Medical School

Now, the Zulu club tradition is under new scrutiny as some in New Orleans are accusing the Zulu club of racism.

At last month’s protest at the clubhouse by Take ‘Em Down NOLA – a group that has worked to remove Confederate statues from the city – several Zulu members painted their faces in their traditional masking to taunt the demonstrators.

“They know good and damn well that this blackface has its roots in minstrelsy and they are the modern-day minstrels,” Take ‘Em Down NOLA coordinator Malcolm Suber told the New Orleans Advocate. “They are strictly for the white guests who come to town to take part in Mardi Gras.”

“We will fight tooth and nail to the last drop of our blood to take down all the symbols of white supremacy,” he added.

It’s not the first time the Zulu club faces criticism. In 1949, musician Louis Armstrong was pilloried when he appeared on a float at the head of the Zulu parade with his face painted black.

Louis Armstrong as "king" of the Zulu Krewe, 1949 /

And according to a narrative of Zulu history posted on the group’s website, membership dropped to only 16 people during the black power movement of the 1960’s, when the Zulu’s grass skirts and blackface were considered out of step with the times and demeaning.

“There was a faction who thought the way they were doing it, having a Zulu sitting on an oil can with a palm frond instead of a real scepter, that that was kind of degrading,” said Carnival historian and New Orleans Magazine editor Errol Laborde who believes that Zulu’s blackface is not done in a spirit of hate.

In 1965, the Zulus bowed to pressure from the African-American community to parade without the typical face makeup, according to Jarvis DeBerry, a columnist with the Times Picayune. They paraded with masks instead, until defiantly returning to the traditional face paint two years later.

“The members that started this organization, they were laborers,” Zulu historian Clarence Becknell said. “They couldn’t afford the masks, and they used it just to mask on Mardi Gras. That’s all it really was.”

“Some individuals used it the wrong way. And when they use it the wrong way, it gave it a different meaning. To us it didn’t mean anything; it was just a mask.”

In the run up to this year’s Mardi Gras celebration, the club has remained unwilling to change its parade costume.

“Both black and white, you name it,” Clarence Becknell said. “They just love to get in the parade.”

“The coconuts, the motifs and the costumes – part of the costume is the blackface,” he said.  “You have to look and see what the purposes of it are for. We’re not political, we don’t use it for any other reason than just to parade. That’s all.”

On February, the Zulu Social Aid & Pleasure Club distributed a statement in an effort to head off any criticism of its long-standing custom of parade riders blackening their faces.

The statement says Zulu parade costumes bear no resemblance to those worn by “blackface” minstrel performers at the turn of the century. It also says Zulu’s costumes are designed to honor garments worn by South African Zulu warriors and notes the tradition hails from poverty in the post-Reconstruction South, when makeup – not masks – was the only option available to them.

“Clueless outsiders” wouldn’t understand

“The Zulu club was founded in response to the racism that was present in Mardi Gras where black people were not allowed to participate” in the parade-day celebrations of historically-white social clubs, said Shantrelle P. Lewis, a historian who studies blackface traditions, in an interview with NPR’s Michele Martin. For the Zulus, she said, “it was a way to combat some of the racism and segregation taking place in Mardi Gras.”

“If you’re looking at the Zulu club within a tradition of masquerading and masking... then painting one’s face is a part of Carnival,” said Lewis.

Furthermore, Lewis said, it’s a New Orleans tradition that many outsiders simply wouldn’t understand.

“New Orleans understands New Orleans’ traditions, and the city has been very insular,” Lewis said, echoing local writers who blame “clueless outsiders” for misunderstanding local culture.

“A lot of our traditions have existed without the participation and the scrutiny of people outside of New Orleans. And for the average black person in New Orleans, including members of my own family, they simply do not connect the blackface in Zulu with minstrelsy ...and they most certainly are not looking at it as an offense.”

“I see why it’s nuanced,” she said. “But you can’t take it out of the context from which it was originally created.”

Zulu club officials, among them some of New Orleans’ most prominent black business and elected leaders, say their Carnival getups have nothing to do with the racist minstrel shows and offensive depictions implicit in the blackface legacy that demeans African-Americans – even when the black makeup is worn by the club’s white members.

“Blackface is pretending that black people are less than human; the black makeup that we wear has nothing to do with that,” said City Councilman Jay Banks, a one-time Zulu king who now serves as chairman of the organization’s board.

“Our costumes are warrior-like,” he said, “and they have nothing to do with the buffoonishness when these idiots do blackface.”

New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, center, and Zulu members pose in 2012 before the group's parade / CNN

Andrew Gross, a white entrepreneur who’s paraded with Zulu since 2004 echoed the sentiment saying he’s “never had a single soul say anything” to him about his black parade makeup.

“We’re not trying to disguise the fact that we’re whatever race underneath,” he said. “I’m not out there on Mardi Gras morning trying to pretend I’m not a white guy.”

“If someone misconstrues that, I 100% respect that. You can’t blame people for how they feel,” he told CNN. “But I think if they understood the relevance of it, being a Zulu, for me, a white guy from Uptown New Orleans, ... is just such an honor for me. It’s opened up so many doors...Ь

“If my Zulu brothers want me to mask this way,” he said, “I’m going to mask this way.”

Some Zulu officials insist that seeing white float riders donning black makeup simply does not conjure notions of racist blackface.

“Mardi Gras is just one part of who we are,” said State Sen. Troy Carter – who is African-American – who has participated in club events for decades, including donning black makeup as a float rider.

“I see it just the opposite because it’s an exchange of culture,” he said. “When our white brothers and sisters engage in Zulu, that’s a recognition of us better understanding each other’s cultures.”

Columnist Jarvis DeBerry of The Times-Picayune, who is black, thinks otherwise, though: “If Zulu doesn’t change, if it continues to demand that its members paint their faces black, please don’t misconstrue that as permission for anybody else to do the same.”

The leader of the nonprofit Dialogue on Race Louisiana, which hosts community conversations, took a similar view.

“If it was me, I wouldn’t use black paint ... because it looks like Jim Crow blackface that whites used,” Maxine Crump, recognized as the first black woman to live in a dorm at Louisiana State University, said.

Author: USA Really