By C.C. Campbell-Rock
As he was undergoing impeachment in the U.S. House of Representatives, then-President William J. Clinton said in a deposition, “…That depends on what the meaning of is, is.”
Clinton’s play on words is akin to the current debate raging over the 110-year-old Zulu Social Aid & Pleasure Club’s (ZULU S.A.P) position that the Mardi Gras parading krewe does not wear blackface paint but rather “black make-up.” Club leaders say the group will continue the black make-up tradition; in spite of recent criticism.
The debate over the ZULU S.A.P.’s members’ blackening of their faces, resurfaced in the wake of the blackface scandals of two Virginia democrats, Governor Ralph Northam and Attorney General Mark R. Herring. Northam first admitted and apologized for appearing in a photo of a person wearing black face paint and standing next to a robed Klu Klux Klansman, only to reverse course the next day by saying he was sure it wasn’t him in the photo on his medical school yearbook page. Herring admitted to wearing blackface in the past.
New Orleans’ Take Em Down NOLA Coalition (TEDN) is now demanding that the ZULU Club’s 800 members “take off the blackface” for this year’s Lundy Gras and Mardi Gras festivities on Monday, March 4 and Tuesday, March 5, respectively. Entertainment for the Zulu Coronation Ball include Monica, Jeffrey Osborne, and D-Nice & Friends.
“There is no excuse for the ZULU Social Aid & Pleasure Club to either accept and support or to deny what blackface represents. To defend the blackface paint you wear as “black makeup” is a distinction without distinction,” TEDN wrote in a letter to the club’s president; requesting that the parade krewe “take off the blackface.”
However, the Zulu S.A.P. leadership said they wear black make-up; not blackface paint. Zulu’s historian emeritus, Clarence A. Becknell Sr., said the early paraders wore blackface because they were too poor to wear masks.
“Black make-up is not blackface. Our black make-up has nothing remotely to do with blackface minstrel performances. Our members wear black make-up in concert with honoring the Zulu Tribe, including our entire ensemble. It has nothing to do with the demeaning or derogatory acts of wearing blackface,” said Zulu Chairman Jay H. Banks, who represents District B on the New Orleans City Council.
Merriam-Webster defines blackface as “black makeup worn (as by a performer in a minstrel show) in a caricature of the appearance of a black person also: a performer wearing such makeup”
The dictionary added a note to its definition: “The wearing of blackface by white performers was, from the early 19th through the mid-20th centuries, a prominent feature of minstrel shows and similar forms of entertainment featuring exaggerated and inaccurate caricatures of black people. Its modern occurrence in imitation of such performers is considered deeply offensive.”
“Whether you call it makeup or blackface paint, the result is the same. To add insult to injury, five percent of your club members are Euro-Americans and 20 percent of your riders are Euro-Americans and they wear blackface, too,” TEDN organizer Malcolm Suber, an adjunct professor, wrote in the letter to Elroy James, President of the Zulu Social Aid & Pleasure Club.
TEDN is recognized as the group that started the movement to take down New Orleans’ Confederate monuments and other symbols of white supremacy. Since then the group’s work has inspired people as far away as Haiti, who are leading their own movement to remove statues of their colonial oppressors.
“It is no longer tenable for ZULU to pretend that wearing Blackface is not reinforcing racist stereotyping of Black people,” Suber adds.
Moreover, we learned that 20 percent of Zulu riders are White and also wear blackface makeup. Why is this not seen as racist behavior? Are we to give ZULU a pass and allow this to happen? We say hell no! Take off the blackface.”
“Our black make-up is not meant to be offensive. My hope is that wouldn’t be offended and that they become educated about our reality,” Banks said. He added that all of the club’s members are “walking in lock step,” in preserving the black make-up tradition.
TEDN is holding a press conference, Thursday, February 21, outside of the ZULU Social Aid & Pleasure Club, at Orleans Avenue and Broad Street to protest ZULU’s refusal to stop wearing “blackface.”
This not the first time that ZULU S.A.P. received condemnation from New Orleans’ African American community.
“In the 1960s, membership dwindled as a result of social pressures from civil rights activists. The protesters advertised in the local black community’s newspaper The Louisiana Weekly stating:
‘We, the Negroes of New Orleans, are in the midst of a fight for our rights and for a recognition of our human dignity which underlies those rights. Therefore, we resent and repudiate the Zulu Parade, in which Negroes are paid by white merchants to wander through the city drinking to excess, dressed as uncivilized savages and throwing cocoanuts like monkeys. This caricature does not represent Us. Rather, it represents a warped picture against us. Therefore, we petition all citizens of New Orleans to boycott the Zulu Parade. If we want respect from others, we must first demand it from ourselves.
“The krewe, with the support of the Mayor and chief-of-police, refused to give in to pressure and continued to parade, but gave up blackfacing, wearing grass skirts and kept the identity of the king secret. Due to continued pressure, by 1965 there were only 15 Zulu members remaining. The membership of local civil rights leaders Ernest J. Wright and Morris F.X. Jeff Sr. into Zulu eventually lifted tensions and membership started to increase and the krewe resumed their old traditions, including blackface,” according to Wikipedia.
On February 7, 2019, The Washington Post published an editorial entitled James Comey: Take Down the Confederate Statues Now, in which the former FBI Director wrote: “White people designed blackface to keep black people down, to intimidate, mock and stereotype. It began during the 19th century and wasn’t about white people honoring the talent of black people by dressing up to look like them. It was about mocking them and depicting them as lazy, stupid and less than fully human. It was a tool of oppression. As a college kid in Virginia during the 1980s, I knew that and so did my classmates.”
On that same day, The Washington Post reported that Gucci, the famous Italian fashion designer, apologized for and ceased sales of a sweater the newspaper called ‘Haute Couture Blackface.’
“We’re not going to let someone else’s delusion become our reality,” adds Banks.
Banks stands by the Zulu’s black make-up, as a time-honored tradition for the group. “When black riders have to wear the white masks in Endymion, where is the outcry about that? Should Native Americans stop honoring Pocahontas because “Donald Trump’s uses her name in a derogatory way? Is there anything wrong with a black person wearing the mask of a white man that is sold with the Superman costume?”
When asked what the real Zulus think of the Mardi Gras Club wearing black make-up, Banks said, “They were in the parade two or three years ago.” He said the tribe’s members didn’t object to the black make-up.
“They wore the traditional costumes but they didn’t wear the black make-up,” Banks said of the South African Zulu Tribe that paraded with the Zulu S.A.P.