About a year ago, my boyfriend Chuck was commissioned to paint coconuts for Krewe of Zulu, the over-a-century-old New Orleans parade which is first to roll on Mardi Gras day. Hand decorated, Zulu coconuts are one of the most sought-after Mardi Gras “throws”; more coveted than beads by a long shot.
When Chuck met with his Zulu contact to hand over the coconuts, he was offered a rare invitation to ride along as a guest in this year’s Zulu Parade.
“Bring your girlfriend,” he was told.
Two things you should know:
1. Complexities of ethnic identity aside, I am a white woman who moved to New Orleans in 2015.
2. Wearing blackface-like makeup is mandatory for all Zulu riders, regardless of race and membership/guest status.
As someone who spends a lot of time reading and talking about racism and race relations, and someone new-ish to New Orleans Carnival, I had a mixed reaction to the invitation. I knew that Zulu was beloved, and that this invitation was an honor, but I was (I think understandably) hesitant.
I decided to dig a little deeper before making a decision.
Why do the citizens of a majority black city line the streets every year to watch Zulu and clamor for coconuts? How is it that non-black people, especially white people, can parade so confidently wearing the required makeup?
And what do I do with an invitation to wear blackface?
Today, certain yearbook photos have journalists poring over the same materials and ideas I had during my personal research project. The back-and-forth is as intense as my emotions a year ago: The New York Times interviewed two New Orleanians who find Zulu distasteful, particularly since the somewhat recent addition of white riders who must also wear the makeup.
(Finding New Orleanians who dislike Zulu is an impressive feat, in my opinion. Every native of the city I spoke to about my dilemma either loved Zulu or was neutral about the krewe, but perhaps I needed to look harder.)
Local news coverage has called the discussion “misguided and unwarranted,” while also pointing out that Zulu has taken off the “blackface” before, during the Civil Rights Movement when the krewe almost ceased to exist because of its makeup.
Is that about to happen again?
Local activist group Take Em Down NOLA, which helped spur the removal of confederate monuments in the city, would like that. They seized the opportunity to resurrect a previously abandoned argument that Zulu had to be stopped, though the comments on their Facebook posts make it clear that they once again lack local support. Some comments suggest that the leaders of the activist group are from out of town, a recurring theme I found among people who weren’t enthused by Zulu’s makeup.
When Take Em Down NOLA held a protest of Zulu, counter-protesters (mostly comprised of Zulu members) turned the protest into a party, in classic New Orleans style.
Amidst all this, the Zulu club released a statement distinguishing their makeup from blackface (thus my use of quotation marks around the word), pointing to its historical roots honoring South African Zulu warriors, and the fact that when Zulu first marched in 1909 as the only black Mardi Gras krewe, members couldn’t afford traditional masks, so painted their faces instead.
What the statement doesn’t include is the explanation you’re more likely to hear on the streets of New Orleans: that Mardi Gras is a time for satire and subversion, and in the era of Jim Crow white actors commonly used blackface to depict hurtful stereotypical black characters on stage. All Mardi Gras krewes were white-only until members of the Zulu club decided to march in 1909, crashing the party, so to speak.
Zulu doesn’t hide the fact that their first marchers felt “inspired” by a play, but while many sources say the play included actors in blackface, others don’t, and the Zulu club doesn’t mention it in the official history on their website.
I’m not sure it really matters whether that particular play used blackface. In 1909, what better way to subvert the well-documented, casual, and common use of blackface than to create an all-black krewe at all-white Mardi Gras, and wear blackface while doing it? Was that part of the original intention, though? 110 years later, it’s hard to say.
You’ll also hear that the Zulus were mocking Rex: an all-white krewe that “reinforce[d] the narrative of the white male patriarch as the ruling elite.” Indeed, because krewes and the social clubs they are attached to are private entities, they remained segregated for much of Mardi Gras history. Parade riders were overwhelmingly white and rich, throwing beads and doubloons at revelers who were overwhelmingly black and/or poor.
Zulu, of course, chose to throw coconuts instead. They also crowned a king, as other krewes did, but their king’s crown was a lard can, his scepter a banana stalk.
Many will suggest that while we’re focusing on a black krewe’s use of “blackface,” that we should perhaps put at least as much attention on Rex and other krewes’ use of masks and caps that still look eerily like those worn by the Ku Klux Klan, of which some members of white-only krewes were undoubtedly involved with throughout Mardi Gras’ long history.
Others will recall the krewes of Comus, Momus, and Proteus, which withdrew from parading in 1992 when social clubs were asked to publicly certify that they did not discriminate based on race, religion, gender, disability, or sexual orientation in order to obtain parade permits.
You read that right: segregation was so embedded in the culture of Mardi Gras, that desegregation of riders wasn’t really visible until the year Nirvana released “Smells Like Teen Spirit”.
And when Zulu opened their arms to non-black riders, they decided to treat them as equals: all riders wear the same traditional makeup on their faces.
I had a decision to make.
I found quite a few helpful resources. I read an AfroPunk article by a woman, whose uncles are Zulu members, grappling with the discovery that her great-aunt criticized Zulu’s use of blackface in 1940. I recalled a 2017 snafu when the husband of a white woman riding with Zulu was forced to resign from his job because of a social media post gone racistly awry. And I again read more local perspective that all the talk about Zulu and blackface was really about “liberal guilt and clueless outsiders.”
Again and again, it circled back to this idea that New Orleanians “get it,” and outsiders don’t.
This isn’t a “Cleveland Indians fans get it, and non-Clevelanders don’t” situation, as local writer C.W. Cannon clarified: “Are the Cleveland Indians…actually [a] Native American institution, founded, owned, and staffed, at all levels, by Native Americans?” The Zulu club, a majority black social support organization outside of Mardi Gras time, is black-founded and -run.
New Orleanians get it.
As a recent transplant, I’m an outsider in a lot of ways. After a lot of research, I do feel like I finally “get it,” but does that make it okay for me to accept Zulu’s invitation? Most Zulu members and New Orleanians would say (and have said) “yes!”, while just about everyone else is unsure.
Perhaps one of the most impactful answers I got was from a (black) friend of mine back home on St. Thomas, USVI:
“Shannon, I love you, and I want you to do things that will make you happy. I hope you do this if you think you’ll really enjoy it, but you should know that if you do, I’ll be very uncomfortable.”
That was it for me. I didn’t need this experience badly enough. I didn’t want to ride with Zulu so much that I would, as many New Orleans friends suggested, accept the invitation and simply stay off social media and not take pictures that day. I wouldn’t hide the experience if I did it, but I wouldn’t do it at all if it would hurt people I cared about.
Locals may get it, but as a member of not just the New Orleans community, but also the communities I’ve lived and worked in over the years, I can’t reasonably expect all the people I care about to not find this hurtful.
I’m not saying that my choice is the “right” choice; it’s just the right choice for me right now. I want to keep talking about Zulu, blackface, and race at Mardi Gras — I know that I’ve barely scratched the surface. I also feel that anyone who is thrilled at the idea of riding with Zulu and is invited by the club should absolutely, 100% do it.
I admire Zulu, and its members and guests should be free to express themselves as freely as everyone else during Mardi Gras. While Zulu is clearly hearing people’s feelings about their makeup, I think those opinions should be just one part of any decision making process the club undergoes during this media frenzy. Telling a black organization whether and how they can use blackface-like makeup may be a bit counter intuitive to the goal of doing so. It’s complicated.
Whatever happens, this Mardi Gras I’ll be one of many revelers on the sidewalk, hoping to catch a Zulu coconut.