The nation's sudden fixation with blackface hasn’t escaped Chelsea Clinton. The former First Daughter took to Twitter on Tuesday to comment on a recent poll showing roughly a third of Americans still think it’s OK for a white person to blacken their face for Halloween.

“The answer is no. Always no. Blackface is never acceptable. There are no Halloween exceptions,” Clinton tweeted.

“Agreed,” one follower replied. “Unless you’re riding in Zulu.”

It's a common response from members and fans of the Zulu Social Aid & Pleasure Club and its century-old tradition — a requirement, actually — for riders to wear blackface and grass skirts while handing out painted coconuts to the crowds on Fat Tuesday.

“One is make-believe, the other is real life,” said George Rainey, who will ride in blackface as King Zulu when the parade rolls on March 5. “We’ve been doing it for 115 years.”

The notion that Zulu tradition trumps the odious symbolism of blackface from early 20th-century minstrelsy is all but a given in New Orleans. But as a blackface scandal rocks the Virginia statehouse and sends a nation digging through dusty high-school yearbooks, Zulu members are expecting greater scrutiny as Mardi Gras approaches.

Complicating matters is the makeup of Zulu itself: What began as an all-black Carnival krewe poking fun at an all-white Mardi Gras long ago opened its doors to white members and float riders who also "black up" for the occasion. These days, about one in five Zulu riders are white, many of them invitees who are not Zulu members.  

The widening debate over blackface has left Zulu leaders bracing for a renewed public attack. Similar complaints nearly extinguished the krewe during the Civil Rights era.

Over the past few days, Zulu leaders and supporters — including U.S. Rep. Cedric Richmond, D-New Orleans — have been busy crafting a public statement from Zulu to explain the club’s history of parading in blackface. Zulu’s president, Elroy James, said Tuesday that he wasn’t ready to release anything just yet.

But while Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam and the state’s attorney general, Mark Herring, cling to their posts after each admitted recently to having worn blackface, James said Zulu has yet to see a backlash.

In an unforgiving era, though, it’s not entirely clear that Zulu can escape attack, said state Sen. Troy Carter, D-New Orleans, a Zulu member for about two decades.

“It’s something that’s in the now, and we should at minimum be prepared to fully explain,” Carter said, “so we can separate Zulu from what might be considered a racially insensitive act, from someone who meant it in a demeaning way.”

According to Zulu’s official account and others, a group of black laborers formed a club called The Tramps at the dawn of the 20th century. They changed the club’s name and motif after attending a musical comedy at the Pythian Theater in 1909 that included a skit about the Zulu tribe.

During the earliest Zulu parades, King Zulu wore a lard can for a crown and a banana stalk for a scepter. By some accounts, members chose blackface because they couldn’t afford masks.

Carter referred to Zulu’s use of blackface as a “cultural expression” paying homage to African tribes.

“It’s very much like you see the (Mardi Gras) Indians performing during Mardi Gras. That’s a very serious cultural expression,” he said. “This is not something you go trick-or-treating in. It’s not satire at all. In fact, there’s no satirical value. The intent is not to be funny. It’s just the opposite.”

Some accounts of Zulu’s history suggest far less reverence.

“The simplest historical view of an old-fashioned Zulu parade is that, however it may have been to look at, it was merely a day-long drunk,” New Yorker writer Calvin Trillin wrote in 1964.

In the 1960s, many black New Orleanians turned against the club, in part over concerns that Zulu's blackface was out of step with the times. Membership shriveled to as few as 16. But Zulu bounced back with surprising resilience, Trillin wrote in 1998, and part of that was inviting in white members.

What had once been considered “a sort of moving ‘Amos ’n’ Andy’ show that would eventually crumble under the pressure of respectable black people,” Trillin wrote, had changed over the decades. It grew “more lavish and, somehow, more acceptable, with the inclusion of black professionals and politicians and a number of white people.”

Doratha “Dodie” Smith-Simmons, 75, who participated in the Freedom Rides, said she grew up attending "black Mardi Gras" on Claiborne Avenue.

"I think back then Zulu was making a mockery of Rex and all the other white krewes,” she said. “At one point there was some opposition to the Zulus doing blackface. Back then it didn’t really matter to me.”

Adding white riders didn’t change the meaning, she said.

“It started off being a totally black organization; this is blacks painting their face black. So there’s a bit of a difference. The whites who chose to be part of Zulu are just carrying on the tradition.”

Some scholars of the country’s racial history are not so forgiving of blackface in any context.

Samuel Black, director of the African American Program at the Heinz History Center in Pennsylvania, argued that any original meaning that conjured African tribal ritual has “morphed into something else” when it comes to blackface.

“When you begin to have people that don’t have the understanding, the appreciation of those traditions, who only copy what they see, it’s like a bastard rendition of something,” he said.

Black offered a parallel.

“If there was a Jewish person making fun of the Holocaust, they would be ostracized," he said, "and it should be the same way in the African-American community.”

Errol Laborde, editor and publisher of New Orleans Magazine and a Mardi Gras historian, said blackface was “totally appropriate” when the founders of Zulu started masking.

“There wasn’t any hostile meaning. They were honoring the legacy of the Zulu tribe,” Laborde said. “The original Zulu parades were a spoof, but more of a spoof of white Mardi Gras. That’s where the poking fun was. Poking fun at whites.”

Still, Laborde paused when asked how he might explain Zulu blackface to an outsider now.

“I wouldn’t try to explain it to an outsider,” he quipped, then added, “I’d say it’s Carnival. You’re going to see a lot of people making fun of other people. It’s part of the costuming, part of the masquerade.”

Trimiko Melancon, director of the African and African-American Studies program at Loyola University, noted the exclusion of blacks from Mardi Gras krewes before Zulu was formed. She described the masking by Zulu members as “subversive.”

“The ways in which they mask the face and the hair and adorn the body is, No. 1, they are challenging and mocking white-created stereotypes and caricatures of black folks in the American landscape,” Melancon said.

The question now, she said, is whether “you arrive at a moment in which these dynamics no longer operate in a particular type of spirit. Part of the question we have to ask is: Does it have the same effect?”

Carter, the state senator and Zulu member, said it's now up to the club to defend itself from criticism.

“I think it’s an issue that needs to either be completely explained and put into its proper perspective," he said, "or it’s a practice we should revisit.”


Follow John Simerman on Twitter, @johnsimerman.