Brentin Mock is a staff writer at CityLab. He was previously the justice editor at Grist.
For more than 100 years now, members of the Zulu Social Aid & Pleasure Club in New Orleans have painted their faces black and worn caricatured Zulu tribe costumes on Mardi Gras as part of the holiday’s festivities. Activists in the city are saying it’s time to bring that blackface tradition to end. Last month, members of the racial justice group TakeEmDown NOLA staged a protest in front of the Zulu Club headquarters, demanding that they renounce blackface. Members at the club that day responded by putting their blackface on early and bringing a second-line band to drown out the protests.
For TakeEmDownNOLA, their latest protest is consistent with their mission to eliminate all symbols of white supremacy in New Orleans, not just those that honor Confederate military leaders. Blackface is undeniably a legacy of white entertainers’ minstrel shows of the late-19th and early-20th centuries that mocked African Americans and painted them as uncivilized simpletons—a caricaturization that white people have used to justify the discrimination and dehumanizing of black people.
The New Orleans Zulus, as the story goes, adopted blackface from a group of white vaudevillian actors who had painted their faces black, wore straw skirts, and tossed coconuts around for a theatrical skit that caricatured an African Zulu tribe. Modern-day Zulu Club members defend their practice by saying they are honoring the original group who were poking fun at the white actors. And there is a lot to like with this defense if you are a member of the Zulu Social Aid & Pleasure Club, or a preservationist-hawk for all New Orleans culture. However, if you are neither of those things and you happen to be in New Orleans for Mardi Gras, then Zulu blackface may not be for you. But you will be subjected to it anyway, even if it offends you.
If defending Zulu blackface for the culture, then you could easily argue that the campaign to erase blackface is as futile and misguided as that one time when the NAACP held a funeral for the N-word. Blackface defenders could argue that just as many black people have adopted the N-word—though with a slightly modified inflection to signify a more endearing connotation, despite the word’s troublesome career—the Zulu Club is doing the same with painted blackface.
“Black face is a demeaning act. It is not only the makeup, it’s the clothes, the buffoonery, it’s the stupidity, it’s the entire devaluation of a race that we have never participated in, so it’s much different what they do and what we do,” said Jay Banks, chairman of the Zulu club’s board of directors to a local news station. “It’s not the same thing. Black makeup is not black face.”
Others could argue that Zulu Club blackfacing is a repudiation of the proverbial “white gaze” that the novelist Toni Morrison often references, where black people feel the need to correct their public behavior out of fear of being shamed by observing whites.
It’s also worth understanding that New Orleans prides itself on rebelling against what the rest of America does or wants it to do, and black New Orleanians can be even more rebellious in this regard—no matter how pernicious the optics are. Consider that this is the city where parents in a black Catholic church held a pro-paddling march when the Catholic school ended its corporal punishment policies.
What these tensions often boil down to is culture—the defense of a New Orleanian, or a black New Orleanian way of life. It shouldn’t be overlooked that black cultural norms have been under attack in the city, whether it’s noise ordinances to quiet the street-busking that many young black musicians rely on for money, or the rising permit costs for second-line marches.
Resistance to some New Orleans reforms also tend to share a perception that white people or “outsiders” are behind them. The blackface debate fits squarely here with some already saying that the TakeEmDown activists are getting propped up by outsiders who don’t understand the culture. Writing for The Lens, Lydia Y. Nichols argued that the blackface protest is, itself, tantamount to white supremacy. Aiming at TakeEmDownNOLA, Nichols, who is black, wrote:
Like many contemporary social-justice activists, they seem to share the white supremacist belief that working-class, Southern Black people need to be changed; that we need to submit to their higher wisdom and agenda. Take ‘Em Down NOLA reinforces the narrative that the Black masses are stupid and need education—in fact, so stupid that we annually celebrate our own ridicule. Having sought and secured press coverage, Take ‘Em Down NOLA is not protesting a minstrel show; they’re starring in a self-produced minstrel show, and it throws into question the sincerity of the group’s effort to rid the 110-year-old Black club and cultural tradition of the symbols it has long deployed.
TakeEmDownNOLA is having none of this, though. For these activists, who’ve protested, since 2016, Mardi Gras activities such as throwing Confederate paraphernalia from parade floats, the Zulu Club’s blackface is part and parcel of a larger ecosystem of white supremacist symbols and policies overlording African Americans in New Orleans. They also see this as a ripe time for revisiting and cancelling what they consider to be an odious culture. After all, Governor Ralph Northam and Attorney General Mark R. Herring in Virginia are both under fire for wearing blackface. Meanwhile, a USA Today review of hundreds of college yearbooks has revealed that white people blackfacing is an American pastime that still resonates loudly on present-day universities campuses across the nation.
If punishment is due for white people who do this, then why are we tolerating—no, celebrating it every year in New Orleans?
“Some traditions are bad traditions,” TakeEmDownNOLA activist Malcolm Suber, who is black, told NOLA.com. “The world changes and we have to be in tune with what is happening in the world.”
Here the N-word debate is instructive, though it doesn’t exactly provide a strong scaffold for blackface logic. While there is no universal embrace of the N-word amongst black people—many African Americans would still love to have the word buried for good—there is nary a city in the U.S. where you won’t find segments of black people using the term. But you probably won’t find black people anywhere outside of New Orleans wearing blackface—not even on Mardi Gras in cities like Mobile and Washington, D.C., which both have their own black Mardi Gras traditions. There’s also that little point that not everyone in the Zulu Club is black.
“[Zulu Club] members have invited white people to blacken up their faces right along side them,” says Michael “Quess” Moore, one of the TakeEmDownNOLA activists. “Black children and black families have to be exposed to that. It’s way out of control, over the top, and it should have never been done in the first place.”
Perhaps the origins and intention of Zulu blackface are satirical— though this is up for debate. However, for satire to work the audience has to be in on the joke. But as NOLA.com columnist Jarvis DeBerry, who is black, has written, it’s definitely not certain that the joke was ever supposed to be OK for a global audience.
“It’s unclear what the original joke was meant to be, but it seems obvious to me that it was a joke told by working-class black people of New Orleans to other working-class black people of New Orleans,” wrote DeBerry. “Throughout history, marginalized groups have told jokes among themselves that they didn’t intend for the larger population to hear and certainly didn’t intend for the larger population to join in on.”
Blackface in New Orleans is not so much a black cultural expression as it is a Zulu Club cultural expression—a hyper-localized activity that doesn’t even stretch across the city of New Orleans. Should any parade other than the Zulu Club’s exhibit people in black face paint, we’d be having a much different conversation.
Yet, though the expression is very unique to this one particular day and this one particular social club, the blackface message gets sent well beyond this club, this city, and this holiday. People visit New Orleans from all around the world on Mardi Gras, and most of the tourists are not up on the historical scripture and verse that could possibly contextualize the blackface images that will greet them. In that regard, many of them will receive it as a greeting, and not with the critical elenchus it deserves—especially not after their third Hand Grenade.
Governor Northam might see these images and use them to justify his adamant stance that he remain in office, even as black legislators are telling him to step down. This is not all about white gaze, either. Millions more people outside of New Orleans will see these images via Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat and other social media networks, and many of them will be repulsed. Black people outside of New Orleans might feel assaulted. They won’t feel this way because a white person is shaming them; they will feel this way because they know these images were used for decades to paint black people as savages.
Interestingly, the defenders of Zulu blackface culture share a bit in common with the defenders of Confederate monuments and regalia. In no way, of course, should Zulu members be seen as the equivalent of members of the Confederate, or even Confederate supporters— Zulus are not venerating a way of life that sought to preserve the enslavement of African Americans. But by defending a clearly offensive activity such as blackface, they are entertaining the same logic: heritage, not hate.
The city’s response to Confederate defenders who used that logic was: Fine, if it’s just heritage, then we can put it in a private museum or theater where you can celebrate it all day amongst yourselves. And TakeEmDownNOLA protests were a critical factor in pushing the city towards that response. The same response could be used for Zulu blackface heritage: Celebrate it in your club quarters, at the Zulu Ball, or in some other private setting. Just keep it off the public streets.