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Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club members dance in the procession.

“Black makeup is NOT the same as 'blackface.'”

That’s the headline on a statement the Zulu Social Aid & Pleasure Club put out Wednesday as leaders of the krewe aim to head off any criticism over its long tradition of Mardi Gras float riders blackening their faces.

The four-page statement, issued on the eve of Carnival amid a widening blackface scandal that has rocked the Virginia statehouse, focused on distinguishing Zulu’s tradition from the blatantly racist blackface of minstrel shows from the 19th and early 20th centuries.

“Shocking photographs periodically come to light exposing the fact that even some of our most respected citizens still engage in this racist behavior,” reads the statement, which includes a now-infamous decades-old yearbook photo that has landed Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam in hot water.

“Those who incorrectly compare our use of black makeup to 'blackface’ minstrelsy can first look to our name to dispel that notion,” Zulu's statement reads.

“Zulu parade costumes bear no resemblance to the costumes worn by ‘blackface’ minstrel performers at the turn of the century. Zulu parade costumes more closely resemble and are designed to honor garments worn by South African Zulu warriors,” the statement adds.

The statement also endorses the view that the krewe’s century-old tradition of members darkening their skin hails from black poverty in the post-Reconstruction South, when “makeup (and not masks)” was “the only option available to Zulu members at that time.”

The statement comes three weeks before hundreds of Zulu members and invited guests get set to roll on the morning of Fat Tuesday, delivering coveted painted coconuts to paradegoers.

Among them are expected to be more than 100 white riders, including invited sponsors.

While Zulu members estimate that perhaps 5 percent of the krewe’s membership is white, about 1 in 5 riders on its Mardi Gras floats are white.

They too are required to "black up" for the parade.

Zulu’s history “makes it abundantly clear that nothing about the organization, including the black makeup, was intended to insult or degrade African-Americans,” the statement reads. “To the contrary, Zulu has always been about celebrating African and African-American culture, strength and pride.”

Read Zulu's full statement below.


Can't see PDF? Click here.



Follow John Simerman on Twitter, @johnsimerman.