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In New Orleans, The Fight Over Blackface Renews Scrutiny Of A Mardi Gras Tradition

Mar 3, 2019
Originally published on March 3, 2019 4:20 pm

This Tuesday's Mardi Gras celebration in New Orleans has thrust into the spotlight a controversial local tradition dating back more than 100 years.

Every year, members of the city's Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club don grass skirts, feather headdresses and bone jewelry for the Mardi Gras parade.

The Zulus' African-American members — and even some of their white members — also paint their faces black.

The practice has been an oddity existing in plain sight since the Zulu club adopted it in 1909 to pay homage to Zulu warriors in South Africa. But 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. Now, the Zulu club tradition is under new scrutiny.

Zulu is one of the many African-American Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs in New Orleans. The clubs sponsor community service projects, serve as social gathering spots and organize lively parades that wind through the streets of the city's neighborhoods on Sundays. On Fat Tuesday, massive crowds gather along the parade route to watch the floats and try to catch a painted coconut, the Zulu prize throw.

"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, an 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."

But now, some in New Orleans are accusing the Zulu club of racism. Take 'Em Down NOLA, a group that has worked to remove Confederate statues from the city, protested across the street from the Zulu clubhouse last month.

"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's Malcolm Suber told the New Orleans Advocate. "They are strictly for the white guests who come to town to take part in Mardi Gras."

The Zulu club has faced similar criticism before. 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. And according to a narrative of Zulu history posted on the group's website, membership dwindled to only 16 people during the black power movement of the 1960's, when the Zulus' grass skirts and blackface were considered out of step with the times.

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.

In the run up to this year's Mardi Gras celebration, the club has remained unwilling to change its parade costume. At last month's protest at the clubhouse by Take 'Em Down NOLA, several Zulu members put on black face makeup to taunt the demonstrators.

In a statement, the club called the blackface minstrelsy of the past "a racist and vile form of entertainment," and distanced Zulu parade makeup from the blackface worn by people intending to mock African-Americans. "Unfortunately, the offensive conduct of these individuals might cause some to confuse those racist actions with our rich history and traditions – which include wearing black makeup during the Zulu parade," the statement said.

"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. And as a proud New Orleans native, she said she finds the Zulu costume to be appropriate, given the context. "While it's connected to minstrelsy, historically it was more rooted in this idea of a masquerade."

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."

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The Virginia legislature adjourned last week after a tumultuous session in which photos from the governor's medical school yearbook page showing a man in blackface were published by a conservative website. And that not only rocked the Virginia statehouse, it led to revelations about other white politicians appearing in blackface and a national conversation about why white people started wearing blackface to begin with.

But that's called attention to another aspect of the story, one that will be on display on Fat Tuesday in New Orleans this coming week - and a tradition that goes back 110 years. Members of the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club, who are for the most part African-Americans, blacken their faces for their annual Mardi Gras parade. They also put on costumes featuring grass skirts, feathers and bone necklaces. But it's the blackened faces that have drawn the most scrutiny. We called historian Shantrelle Lewis to help us understand the history of the Zulu Krewe, or club, in New Orleans. She's studied the use of blackface in different parts of the world, and she's with us now from member station WHYY in Philadelphia. Shantrelle Lewis, thank you so much for joining us.

SHANTRELLE LEWIS: Thank you, Michel.

MARTIN: So you are from New Orleans. How did the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club get started in 1909 to begin with?

LEWIS: The Zulu club was actually founded in response to the racism that was present in Mardi Gras, where black people were not allowed to participate in the historically white krewes, or Mardi Gras organizations, such as Rex and Comus and Bacchus. So the Zulus decided to create this parade. And so it was a way to combat some of the racism and segregation that was taking place in Mardi Gras.

MARTIN: So why the blackface? And was this - has anybody ever called attention to this before? Has anybody ever objected?

LEWIS: Oh, yeah - plenty of people. I mean, there's been times throughout history the NAACP said it was problematic. So many black people - and even during the Black Power movement, they were also receiving a lot of flak for the blackface. But if you're looking at the Zulu club within a tradition of masquerading and masking, painting one's face is a part of Carnival - or it's a part of a masquerade. And the Zulus will say that they could not afford masks. It was cheaper and it was accessible for them to actually paint their faces black.

MARTIN: OK. Can I just ask you, though - what about, like, the big white lips, that whole thing? Has anybody ever engaged with them on that question? Like, why that?

LEWIS: I mean, it's a caricature. It's Mardi Gras, so everything is exaggerated. If you look at even krewes that are traditionally white, they also have these caricatures of white people and European features. And so it's an exaggeration. And while it's connected to minstrelsy, historically, I think that it was more rooted in this idea of a masquerade - a mask.

MARTIN: All right. So earlier this month, the Zulu club released a statement about the use of blackface, calling it a traditional cultural expression that, quote, "has always been about celebrating African and African-American culture." But there was a protest in front of the Zulu clubhouse a few weeks ago from Take 'Em Down NOLA, this is this group that's been very vocal in the debate over the removal of Confederate monuments. And now they're turning their attention to the use of blackface in the Zulu parade.

LEWIS: Right.

MARTIN: I'm not going to ask you speak for the entire city. But I am wondering, though, what are you hearing from, like, relatives and friends in New Orleans? Like, how do they feel about this back-and-forth about it?

LEWIS: I mean, people are just really dismissive, to be honest with you. I think that New Orleans understands New Orleans' traditions. And the city has been very insular - right? A lot of our traditions have just existed without the participation and the scrutiny of people outside of New Orleans. And so I think that for the average black person in New Orleans, including those members of my family, they just simply do not connect the blackface in Zulu with minstrelsy or making a mockery of black people. And they most certainly are not looking at it as an offensive tradition.

MARTIN: That's Shantrelle P. Lewis. She is an historian and curator and lover of her hometown of New Orleans.

LEWIS: I love it.

MARTIN: And we reached her in Philadelphia. Shantrelle P. Lewis, thank you so much for talking to us.

LEWIS: Thank you, Michel. And (speaking French) laissez les bons temps rouler. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.