Activists calling for the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club to drop its hallmark black face paint because it perpetuates painful racial stereotypes held a small rally on the neutral ground outside the group’s headquarters on North Broad Street on Thursday as members of the krewe heckled them from across the street.
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Organizers with Take 'Em Down, a group that was actively involved in the removal of four monuments to Confederate officials, have turned their sights on the overwhelmingly black Carnival krewe.
Riders in Zulu's parade on Mardi Gras morning, both black and white, blacken their faces.
“They know good and damn well that this blackface has its roots in minstrelsy and they are the modern-day minstrels. They are strictly for the white guests who come to town to take part in Mardi Gras,” said Malcolm Suber, one of the activist group’s leaders.
Take 'Em Down sent a letter to the organization asking for a meeting but was denied, said Suber, who noted that the krewe paraded without blackface briefly in the 1960s when criticized by civil rights activists.
His group plans to continue to put pressure on the club, work to build public opposition to the Zulu custom and call on the City Council to deny the krewe a parade permit in future years if it does not change its ways, he said.
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Zulu’s blackened faces and grass-skirt costumes have come under renewed focus in recent weeks as scandals over politicians who wore blackface in their youth have rocked Virginia’s state government. The organization, in a statement released last week, defended its tradition and argued that “black makeup is not the same as blackface.”
“Zulu parade costumes bear no resemblance to the costumes worn by ‘blackface’ minstrel performers at the turn of the century," the krewe's statement said. "Zulu parade costumes more closely resemble and are designed to honor garments worn by South African Zulu warriors.”
About a dozen protesters Thursday evening held signs, chanted “Take it off” and tried to engage passing rush-hour motorists in conversation. Across Broad Street, about 40 Zulu members milled around the clubhouse, sometimes shouting back at the activists.
As the rally continued, a Zulu member ducked into his Bentley to hastily slap on the group’s signature face paint before flaunting it in front of the protesters. He then passed the makeup to another member, who did likewise.
A Zulu spokesman did not respond to a request for comment before the protest, and Zulu members said they were told not to speak with the media.