The Zulu Conundrum

Publisher’s Note: Peter’s commentary was written prior to the demonstrations by Take ‘Em Down Nola. We were closed for maintenance for the past week, and we hope to soon debut an updated, easier-to-navigate template.

I didn’t set out to be the Bayou Brief’s resident New Orleans Carnival guy, but this is the third time I’ve written about it. The first column involved how Chads and Lost Causers have changed Carnival for the worse. The second piece was a personal reflection on my Krewe du Vieux membership. This piece is the most difficult and sensitive one I’ve ever written about Carnival. Carnival is about fun and games; this column is deadly serious with fewer jokes than usual. Not everything is funny, even to a self-proclaimed satirist like me.

Unless you’ve been hiding under the bed, you’re aware that there’s been a national conversation about blackface. Thus far it’s focused on white Virginia politicians, but blackface is depressingly ubiquitous, especially in the Deep South. Blackface is a practice that went mainstream in the bad old days of Jim Crow and segregation. Its show biz form was called blackface minstrelsy. It was a staple of the entertainment scene before World War II when superstars such as Al Jolson, Cary Grant, Fred Astaire, and Judy Garland among others “blacked up.” Blackface started to become socially unacceptable among enlightened Americans after the war against Nazi racism and genocide. And anti-blackface sentiment accelerated as the Civil Rights movement gained a full head of steam in the 1950’s and ’60’s.

This revulsion against blackface was shared by many black New Orleanians at the peak of the mid-century Civil Rights era; so much so that the subject of this column, the Krewe of Zulu, abandoned the practice from 1965 to 1966 as you can see from pictures posted on Twitter by Picayune food writer Todd Price:

My first New Orleans Carnival was in 1988. I had heard of the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club before moving here but was shocked to see that they still wore blackface. The krewe’s rationale is that they “black up” as a parody of the rich white folks in the Krewe of Rex. I never found that explanation satisfactory and remained personally uneasy but opted to respect the unique and quirky traditions of my adopted hometown. Besides, who among us doesn’t want to catch a Zulu cocoanut on Mardi Gras day?

A few years after Katrina and the Federal Flood, a Zulu member friend offered me a chance to guest ride. I was initially excited by the prospect but asked a threshold question: “Do I have to wear blackface?” I was told that it was mandatory. I politely but firmly declined the offer. While I don’t judge other white people who have done so, there’s no way I would wear blackface. I know too much about the history of the practice to go along just to get along.

Outside of New Orleans, it’s not widely known that up to 20% of Zulu members are white. White members in blackface have faced issues with people unfamiliar with the quirky folkways of our Carnival. The co-founder of Tales of the Cocktail, Ann Tuennerman faced controversy over her husband Paul posting pictures and videos of her on Facebook while “blacked up” for Zulu. After a national outcry on social media, the Tuennermans were obliged to resign from a business that they founded.

There’s a little-known incident involving a prominent national journalist who rode in Zulu after the storm. My trusty source Deep Blog informs me that the “reporter as rider” balked at wearing blackface; saying quite correctly that it would ruin her career. She was allowed to ride without “blacking up,” but Deep Blog tells me that many krewe members grumbled about making such an exception. 

How can wearing blackface in Zulu be benign when it can destroy careers?

That brings me to the state of play in 2019. Zulu has been under intense pressure to explain its position, which it finally did in a lengthy and defensive statement. I was particularly struck by their attempt to explain the difference between blackface and black makeup:

 “Unfortunately, the offensive conduct of these individuals might cause some to confuse those racist actions with our rich history and traditions – which include wearing black makeup during the Zulu parade. Those who incorrectly compare our use of black makeup to ‘blackface’ minstrelsy can first look to our name to dispel that notion. Unlike minstrelsy, which was designed to ridicule and mock Black people, the founders of our Social Aid & Pleasure Club chose the name “Zulu” to honor their African ancestry and the continent’s most fierce warriors.”

I met a bona fide member of the Zulu tribe when I was a student at Tulane Law School. He was a visiting South African law student who saw the Zulu parade and felt that it mocked and demeaned his people. He was not honored by people in blackface wearing grass skirts and waving plastic spears. He told me that the costumes looked straight out of a Tarzan or Jungle Jim movie. That’s just one Zulu’s opinion but it was strongly held.

As to the difference between “blackface” and “black makeup” that strikes me as a distinction without a difference. There *is* a subtle stylistic difference but the impact is the same as former New Orleans City Council President Oliver Thomas pointed out in a fine piece about blackface by NOLA.COM columnist, Jarvis DeBerry who is African American:

“All over the country, people who’ve worn blackface are being called out for it, no matter how many years ago they exhibited that stupidity.

What, if anything, does that mean for the New Orleans group that has been using blackface openly and without apology?

Former New Orleans City Councilman Oliver Thomas, who hosts the “Good Morning Show” on WBOK-AM1230, asked his listeners that question Feb. 6. Thomas brought up Zulu, he later said, because he knew Zulu would be called to account for its tradition.

Thomas — who has participated in at least one Zulu parade and, thus, blackened his own face — said he didn’t find any of the callers’ arguments in favor of blackface persuasive. He also admits that in order for him to put the paint on his face, he had to ignore a voice inside him telling him he shouldn’t do it.

Even if he were to concede the point, he told his listeners, that black people blackening their faces is different than white people blackening their faces, how can it be OK at this point for white Zulu members to paint their faces black but not OK for white people who aren’t?”

I originally considered taking a moderate somewhat mushy position on the issue of Zulu blackface: that it was marginally okay for black members to do it but that white Zulus should wear white face in racial self-parody. I’m a middle-aged white dude and I was reluctant to offer unsolicited advice to a private predominantly African-American organization. But Jarvis DeBerry’s outstanding column jarred me into taking a more forthright stance. The quotes in the piece from my former councilman, Oliver Thomas, and Take ‘Em Down NOLA leader Malcolm Suber who are both African American also stiffened my spine. A stereotype is a stereotype is a stereotype regardless of who’s doing it.

Whatever the merits of the original arguments in favor of Zulu wearing blackface, black makeup, or whatever euphemism you prefer, time has passed them by. Satire, too, must grow and evolve. For example, it used to be socially acceptable to use ugly stereotypes about other ethnic groups. Try watching an old movie with a white actor playing a “Chinaman” be they as wise as Confucius or the butt of jokes; either stereotype is ugly and demeaning. The same goes for the “lazy Mexican” jokes that passed for humor in my youth even though some of them were told by Latin comedians. I won’t even discuss the work of early black movie comedians such as Stepin Fetchit and Mantan Moreland.  A stereotype is a stereotype is a stereotype regardless of who’s doing it.

Ugly racial and ethnic stereotypes used to permeate even higher forms of popular entertainment. We’ve all discussed the racism and Lost Causerism spouted in the Oscar winning movie classic, Gone with the Wind. Try watching David Lean’s 1948 film version of Oliver Twist without cringing over Alec Guinness’ portrayal of Fagin as a compendium of Jewish stereotypes that Josef Goebbels would have found familiar. And that’s one of the greatest actors and film directors of all-time purveying stereotypes that would have been at home in the anti-Semitic Nazi film, Jew Suss. A stereotype is a stereotype is a stereotype regardless of who’s doing it.

Carnival is a form of entertainment. In the abstract, it would be better if entertainment were free of politics and disconnected from the real world. Life doesn’t work that way; just think of the Kaepernick-NFL faceoff. Some of the arguments made on behalf of Zulu blackface by white people are analogous to white comedians who want to say the N word and claim that it’s okay because their intentions are good. It’s not: a stereotype is a stereotype is a stereotype regardless of who’s doing it.

One of the best arguments against the continued wearing of blackface is the company it obliges Zulu to keep. There are several groups who favor rather unsavory Carnival “traditions” that have supported Zulu’s stubborn stand in favor of its blackface tradition. Among them are the Lost Causers of Forever Lee Circle:

The rest of that Facebook page is filled with Lee worship, Lincoln hate, and assorted bigoted bon mots. Do I think Zulu approves of the Lost Causers? Absolutely not. But one must be careful of the company one keeps, and Lost Causers are bad company. They’re the descendants of the night riders, not freed slaves or free people of color,

In the end, I’m just one pundit with an opinion. I suspect that some of the love I got for my Krewe du Vieux piece will be replaced with vitriol. But I want people to open their minds and think about this issue in a broader context. It’s easy to be hyper local and dismissive of the serious concerns raised by blackface in 2019 but it’s unwise. Just imagine trying to explain this aspect of Zulu to people who live in other parts of the country. As much as we wish we lived in a Carnival bubble, we do not.

Zulu is gonna Zulu, but I hope they eventually open their minds to changing with the times. As a member of the Carnival community myself, I have a lot of respect and affection for the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club. It’s the most diverse group in Carnival and its members are good people who put on a great show for the people of our city. But with popularity comes responsibility. I hope they’ll listen to the dissenting voices and roll back their parade to 1965 and 1966 and heed the title of Jarvis DeBerry’s brilliant column: “The Zulu Club once scrubbed off the blackface; can it be convinced to do so again?”

I sincerely hope so. The world has changed, and the joke isn’t funny anymore. They’re working a tougher room in 2019 than in 1909. That calls for new material.