Zulu: Racist Blackface or Mardi Gras Tradition?

In the city of New Orleans near the mouth of Jackson Avenue as it crosses South Claiborne Avenue, families adorned in purple, green and yellow sit in rows of foldout chairs lining the lawns of single-story homes. It is mid-March, and they chat with each other to pass the time, some holding drinks in their gloved hands while others clutch their phones, all the while making sure to keep an ear out for the inevitable slap of drums and trumpet blows that will mark the start of an unusually chilly Mardi Gras day.

The anticipation of something magical about to happen electrifies the crowds on either side of Jackson Avenue.

Close to an hour later, the first sounds signaling the start of Fat Tuesday blast through, cutting into the cold wind and sending a rush of energy that races down the streets and lifts everyone from their chairs and conversations, eyes darting immediately to the streets: brash horns and drumbeats; whistles chirping and sequins shining on the horizon; clapping, yelling and hollering behind the phones pointed at the streets.

Amid the music and fervor, a voice on the loudspeaker announces:

ONCE AGAIN, THE ZULU TRAMPS!

Men donning painted shoes, grass skirts, plumed crowns and the trademark black face paint of the Zulu Tramps dance down the streets to a beat the people of New Orleans have been waiting a year to step to.

Another Mardi Gras has begun, and it’s not unlike one Malcolm Suber witnessed for the first time 40 years ago, when he had recently moved to the city of jazz. He stood waiting in similar crowds, feeling a similar energy: He had never before seen a Zulu Parade, which, according to locals, is a must for anyone who comes down to experience Mardi Gras. And as the Zulu Tramps, a subset of the club that leads the parade and is responsible for injecting life into the sleepy yet anxious crowds, come into view, Suber was perplexed: “I was really shocked when I saw Zulu because I had heard so much about Zulu. Then, grass skirts, nappy hair and, of course, the blackface. I said, ‘What is this supposed to represent?’” Suber, who is a co-founder of the activist coalition Take ’Em Down NOLA, was repulsed by the sight of Afro wigs and black greasepaint worn by the Zulu members. “Being an outsider, not having grown up in the culture of New Orleans, I was shocked. And the people who I had asked about it were not: ‘That’s just Zulu being Zulu.’ … But being Zulu, in this case, means that you are mocking black people, and you are continuing a white supremacist campaign to denigrate black people.”

Suber is not alone: Recently, the primarily African-American group that leads this practice — the Zulu Social Aid & Pleasure Club — has come under fire for its use of what many call blackface in the group’s popular Mardi Gras parade. Take ’Em Down NOLA, whose work includes removing Confederate statues across the city and petitioning to rename schools named after white slave owners and leaders of the Confederacy, has now called upon the Zulu Social Aid & Pleasure Club to abandon its face-paint practice. And with the recent resurgence of the issue of blackface in the media as everyone from seasoned politicians, like Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam and North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper, to young high school and college students across the nation are publicly exposed for their use of blackface in past yearbook photos and in social media posts, this issue has commanded a space on the national stage unlike ever before.

“Blackface comes out of minstrelsy,” says Suber. “Minstrelsy was a form of entertainment created by racist whites who put on exaggerated shows about the behavior and dancing and singing of black people. It was meant to ridicule and stereotype black people.” David Belfield III, a New Orleans lawyer and former Zulu member who was once crowned Zulu King in 1994, denies the connection drawn between Zulu’s face paint and blackface. He differentiates the two by saying, “What the minstrels did back then, in the context of what they were doing it, [was] to embarrass, to ridicule, to mock and make fun of black people back then,” he says, defiantly. “Zulu has never, in the context of what we do, we’ve never worn black paint on our face to mock, ridicule and make fun of black people.”

The King of the Krewe of Zulu parades on Mardi Gras day on March 4, 2014 in New Orleans, Louisiana. (Photo: Sean Gardner / Stringer)

The Zulu Social Aid & Pleasure Club traces its roots to 1908, when a group of black laborers from a social aid organization called the Tramps saw a vaudeville comedy skit “There Never Was and Never Will be a King Like Me.” Acted by a traveling African-American troupe, the Smart Set Company, the performance featured individuals dressed in black makeup depicting themselves in tribal fashion and being branded as “the Zulus,” after an African tribe of the same name. Inspired by what he saw, the leader of the Tramps, John L. Metoyer, decided to rebrand their social aid group as Zulu.

Eventually, Zulu began to participate as a parade in Mardi Gras, wearing the same attire as what they had seen in the play — grass skirts, banana leaf crowns and the now-notorious black makeup. Belfield says the reason for the uniform, particularly the face paint, has to do with Mardi Gras culture at a time in history when black people had fewer rights and more restrictions than the rest of the population. “Back then, we made fun of the white parades and what they did because they wouldn’t let us participate with them. They wore pretty decorated masks, we wore paint on our face.” Belfield clarifies: “But it wasn’t directed at African-Americans; it was never directed in a negative way to African-Americans or anybody.”

Zulu as a parading group reached a level of popularity unmatched by similar Mardi Gras groups of its time, and had counted among its most famous member jazz legend and New Orleans native Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong, who was crowned Zulu King in 1948. At one point, however, Zulu was close to being wiped from existence: At the height of the civil rights era in the 1960s, the organization was criticized for its controversial use of black makeup by local activists within the black community, who took it upon themselves to publish a statement in the Louisiana Weekly:

We, the Negroes of New Orleans, are in the midst of a fight for our rights and for a recognition of our human dignity which underlies those rights. Therefore, we resent and repudiate the Zulu Parade, in which Negroes are paid by white merchants to wander through the city drinking to excess, dressed as uncivilized savages and throwing cocoanuts like monkeys. This caricature does not represent Us. Rather, it represents a warped picture against us. Therefore, we petition all citizens of New Orleans to boycott the Zulu Parade. If we want respect from others, we must first demand it from ourselves.

For two years, in 1965 and 1966, Zulu dropped the black face paint and straw skirts from its Mardi Gras parade attire. The Zulu King at the time, Milton Bienamee, was quoted to have said, “We are moving with the times.” Its membership had also hit an all-time low, at just 15 members. Right as Zulu seemed to fade out for good, two local civil rights leaders, Morris F.X. Jeff Sr. and Ernest J. Wright, joined Zulu. Soon after, they were given the green light to continue parading with blackface. It seemed then that the organization had a fighting chance to continue with business as usual, and in 1973, the club became the first in New Orleans to racially integrate as it expanded its membership to include men of all nationalities and ethnicities, not just those in the black community. The Zulu club now claims to have over 800 members from high social standing, including several judges, lawyers and prominent local businessmen.

“When you look at the context in which we do our black face paint,” says Belfield, “[and] in the context of minstrels, it’s apples and coconuts. It was two totally separate things.”

Another Take ’Em Down NOLA member, schoolteacher Michael “Quess” Moore, disagrees. “The fact is, they saw a minstrel show. They felt inspired by the blackface of minstrel performers. Their black makeup, or whatever they want to call it, is blackface.”

Publicity still of white American actor Al Jolson in blackface from the film ‘The Jazz Singer’ (Warner Bros), 1927. (Photo: John D. Kisch/Separate Cinema Archive/Getty Images)

In the early morning of Mardi Gras, while parade-goers pick their spots down Jackson Avenue to await the arrival of Zulu, members of the Zulu Tramps make last-minute adjustments to their costumes and have their face paint applied at a martial arts dojo located a few blocks away. Dennis Linehan, a white man who moved from Chicago to New Orleans five years ago and has been a member of Zulu for over seven, sits in one of the three chairs where local makeup artists hear out the Tramps’ face-paint requests. Linehan, like most of the Tramps, pulls out his cellphone and shows the woman several pictures of the design he wants: Left eye and mouth in white, rest of face in black. As she picks up a brush, he leans into the chair and says, “To ride on a float in Zulu or be a member on Mardi Gras day, you wear the black-and-white makeup, and it’s an honor. What we’re doing is honoring the founders who started this organization, and in no way it’s meant to be demeaning to any race, especially the African-American race.”

Hours later, Linehan will march in full force with rest of the Zulu Tramps past the small neighborhoods of Jackson Avenue and spilling into the wide city streets of New Orleans proper, dancing past local government buildings and masses of crowds cheering from balconies and raised platforms. The picture Mardi Gras paints, Quess believes, leaves a lot to be desired: “Mardi Gras is a ritual that designs our minds and trains us for the everyday social realities of New Orleans, which is rich white ruling class on top, upper middle class black folks right beneath it — in the slavery plantation dynamic, they would be the overseers or the house servants — and on the bottom is the majority dark-skin black working class, most of whom can never afford to get on a float and ride with Zulu, who stand in the streets and wait for these heroes — these false heroes — to throw them coconuts and plastics as treasures.”

Belfield believes the situation is being grossly misconstrued as something it simply is not, saying, “Mardi Gras a fun, dress-up, make-believe day. It’s a carnival! You’re being somebody you’re not; you’re just having fun.” He also asserts that the debate should be understood on a local level, not a national one: “Mardi Gras is not in New York. Mardi Gras is in New Orleans, and the folks in New York probably don’t understand a day of revelry like we have in New Orleans for Mardi Gras. The folks of Idaho don’t understand a day of revelry we have in New Orleans.”

As the debate over its use of blackface continues, Zulu has no intention of backing down from its traditional use of black face paint, and activists like the Take ’Em Down NOLA coalition have no plans on reeling in their campaign from stopping Zulu.

“Zulu is New Orleans,” asserts Belfield, “and New Orleans is Zulu. We’re one and the same.”