Has the blackface makeup worn by Zulu float riders lost its lampooning luster?
If the Zulu Social Aid & Pleasure Club’s tradition of “blacking up” on Fat Tuesday was first meant to spoof white Mardi Gras krewes like Rex, by way of a cartoonish nod to African tribal warriors, where's the joke now?
Or has Zulu’s century-old tradition — faces blackened, lips and at least one eye painted white — become indefensible, too closely wedded to the racist imagery of minstrel shows amid a national reckoning over blackface?
A debate that simmered across New Orleans before Mardi Gras drew about 300 people to the Carver Theater on Monday for a spirited forum that appeared aimed at putting Zulu squarely on the hot seat.
There was just one hiccup: Zulu’s president, Elroy James, who had been billed to appear on the panel with critics from the group Take 'Em Down NOLA and others, didn't make it. Instead, David Belfield, a lawyer and former Zulu president and king who was expelled from the club, offered to speak in defense of the tradition — though not officially on Zulu's behalf.
On Tuesday, James said he never committed to appearing on the panel and dismissed the forum as irrelevant.
“I didn’t and still don’t know the purpose of the discussion. We’re not in a position to revisit our tradition, and we are not revisiting our tradition,” James said. “There was nothing Zulu is even open to.”
The forum, hosted by the NOLA Black-Owned Media Collaborative and moderated by Jeff Thomas, editor and publisher of the website Think504, appeared aimed at drawing out the krewe to consider scrapping a tradition that dates to 1909. That's when a Carnival club known as “The Tramps” rebranded itself after seeing a skit performed by a traveling black entertainment troupe.
Aside from Belfield, the panelists appeared all to favor encouraging, cajoling or shaming the club into changing its face-painting ways.
Malcolm Suber, of Take ’Em Down Nola, which protested outside Zulu headquarters before Mardi Gras, argued that Zulu should take heed of a national controversy that has erupted over blackface in the wake of a scandal that engulfed several top Virginia officials.
The group, which helped spur the removal of four Confederate monuments from the city’s landscape, has “taken the consistent position … that we’re opposed to all symbols of white supremacy, and that does not exclude Zulu,” Suber said.
“We’re not anti-Zulu. We’re anti-blackface. What we’re trying to say to our brothers in Zulu is, you should look at the world as it’s changing. I would reconsider, if I were you, and say with the rest of America: Blackface is part of our hated past and we don’t want to do that any longer.”
Suber said there’s no evidence to support Zulu’s claim that its face paint isn’t “blackface” at all, and that its “parade costumes bear no resemblance to the costumes worn by ‘blackface’ minstrel performers at the turn of the century.”
Panelist Leon Waters, a local historian, cast doubt on Zulu’s purported allegiance to tribal culture. Waters said Zulu people in South Africa “only painted themselves black when there was a dispute (with) other peoples that would lead them to war. They didn’t 'black up' any other time.
“So I found it rather interesting," Waters said, "if you were moved by the strength and the prowess of these people who did not black up, why did you?”
Some panelists invoked Oretha Castle Haley, the famed New Orleans civil rights activist, who expressed disdain for Zulu face paint. For two years in the 1960s, Zulu went without blacking up on Mardi Gras — using masks instead — amid a backlash that left the club with fewer than 20 members.
Angela Kinlaw, another Take ’Em Down NOLA organizer, argued that if there ever was a distinction to be made between Zulu’s tradition and the blackface of minstrel shows, it has been lost on most people.
“When you put those eyes and enlarge them, when you put the lips and enlarge them, it’s designed this specific way as an extension of the minstrel tradition. There’s no other way to interpret that,” Kinlaw said. “We’re just saying, this blackface thing that you did let go of in ’65, in ’66 — we’re simply asking you to do it again.”
James, the Zulu president, said he was in Baton Rouge and that the club's historian, Clarence Becknell, couldn't make the forum.
But Susan Henry, of the media collaborative, said James verbally committed to sit on the panel and that planning for the event would have stopped without that confirmation from a Zulu representative.
"The turnout ... serves as proof that this is a topic about which the community is passionate," she said in a statement. "Going forward, we sincerely hope that Mr. James and the Zulu organization will be open to finding opportunities to engage the public on this very important issue."
Belfield, speaking as a former longtime Zulu member, argued that, unlike the blackface of minstrelsy, there’s no racism or malice behind the Zulu tradition. Belfield defended the practice even though about one in five Zulu float riders is now white.
“We’re not making fun of black folks. We’re having fun one day a year in a costume that was designed in the early 1900s,” Belfield said.
“Initially, our masking was done to spoof and have fun and ridicule the other organizations that we couldn’t belong to,” he added. “Nowadays, we’re not doing that to hurt or attack anyone."
Belfield rebuffed critics of the krewe’s costumes, which also include grass skirts and Afro wigs, noting contributions Zulu makes in the community, from holiday giveaways to college scholarships.
"We don't back down from community needs. I think our record in the community speaks for itself," he said.
Those hoping for a change from Zulu appeared heartened after Kinlaw presented a series of artistic sketches depicting alternative designs for the face paint that the float riders wear. Belfield, the ex-Zulu member, seemed to welcome the gesture.
“Zulu is not going to stop parading. They’re not going to stop decorating their faces. But we can address an alternative to the decorations. That’s the best thing that I’ve heard yet,” Belfield said.
Except that Belfield wasn’t speaking for Zulu, and James, the club's president, wasn’t having it on Tuesday.
“It’s hard for folks to wrap their mind around the fact Zulu is a private organization, and the 800 members are proud of this tradition,” James said. “The membership has spoken.”
A comment from Susan Henry of the NOLA Black-Owned Media Collaborative has been added to this story.