Wednesday, February 22, 2012

The Blackface Tradition Of The Mardi Gras Zulu Social Aid & Pleasure Club

Edited by Azizi Powell
[Revision: Corrected organization name - 4/13/2012]

Zulu Parade: Mardi Gras 2011 in New Orleans

Uploaded by vparlant on Mar 8, 2011

Scenes from the 2011 Zulu Parade on Mardi Gras Day in New Orleans, La. Includes clip of St. Augustine's Marching 100, McDonogh 35 marching band,dance troupes and Zulus in black face. Video by Nordette Adams

Since 1909 - with the exception of the years 1965 and 1966 - most of the members of the Mardi Gras krewe* Zulus Social Aid & Pleasure Club (Zulus SA&PC) have worn black face paint and grass skirts during their annual Mardi Gras parade. Members of that predominately Black Mardi Gras krewe usually also wear large black afro wigs as part of their Mardi Gras costumes.

*"krewe" = an organization; a membership group that parades during New Orleans Mardi Gras and engages in other social functions.

The Zulu Social Aid & Pleasure Club krewe was formed in 1909 after members of the African American social group Tramps witnessed a theatric skit about the Zulus South African ethnic group.

"Early in 1909, a group of laborers who had organized a club named “The Tramps,” went to the Pythian Theater to see a musical comedy performed by the Smart Set. The comedy included a skit entitled, “There Never Was and Never Will Be a King Like Me,” about the Zulu Tribe...

After seeing the skit, they retired to their meeting place (a room in the rear of a restaurant/bar in the 1100 block of Perdido Street), and emerged as Zulus. This group was probably made up of members from the Tramps, the Benevolent Aid Society [of that ward] and other ward-based groups.

While the “Group” marched in Mardi Gras as early as 1901, their first appearance as Zulus came in 1909, with William Story as King.

The group wore raggedy pants, and had a Jubilee-singing quartet in front of and behind King Story. His costume of “lard can” crown and “banana stalk” scepter has been well documented. The Kings following William Story, (William Crawford – 1910, Peter Williams – 1912, and Henry Harris – 1914), were similarly attired.

1915 heralded the first use of floats, constructed on a spring wagon, using dry good boxes. The float was decorated with palmetto leaves and moss and carried four Dukes along with the King. That humble beginning gave rise to the lavish floats we see in the Zulu parade today."
Editor: "Ward" here means "city neighborhood". To quote that article "Benevolent Societies were the first forms of insurance in the Black community where, for a small amount of dues, members received financial help when sick or financial aid when burying deceased members."

"In 1908, John L. Metoyer and members of a New Orleans Mutual aid society called “The Tramps”, attended a vaudevillian comedy show called, “There Never Was and Never Will Be a King Like Me”. The musical comedy performed by the “Smart Set” at the Pythian Temple Theater on the corner of Gravier and Saratoga in New Orleans, included a skit where the characters wore grass skirts and dressed in blackface. Metoyer became inspired by the skit and reorganized his marching troupe from baggy-pant-wearing tramps to a new group called the “Zulus”. In 1909, Metoyer and the first Zulu king, William Story, wore a lard-can crown and carried a banana stalk as a scepter. Six years later in 1915, the first decorated platform was constructed with dry goods boxes on a spring wagon. The King’s float was decorated with tree moss and palmetto leaves.

In 1916, Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club became incorporated where the organization’s bylaws were established as well as its social mission and dedication to benevolence and goodwill.

In 1933, the Lady Zulu Auxiliary was formed by the wives of Zulu members, and in 1948, Edwina Robertson became the first Queen of Zulu making the club the first to feature a queen in a parade."

From provides additional information about the origins of the Zulu S&PC is found in this article:
"King Zulu has reigned in the streets of New Orleans nearly every Fat Tuesday since 1909. The first kings of Zulu wore lard cans for crowns and carried banana stalks as scepters. Jubilee-singers flanked the king, with Mr. Big Stuff and the Witch Doctor in grass-skirts and black face in attendance. By 2005 the Zulu parades were premiere Mardi Gras events with lavish floats. Gone was the raggedy pants parody of the original parade; the king and queen of Zulu reigned in elegant tuxedo and gown."

Another quote from that same article indicates that at least for a small period of time there was public pressure on the members of that Mardi Gras Krewe to cease wearing blackface:
“Zulus were not without their controversies, either. In the 1960’s during the height of Black awareness, it was unpopular to be a Zulu. Dressing in a grass skirt and donning a black face were seen as being demeaning. Large numbers of black organizations protested against the Zulu organization, and its membership dwindled to approximately 16 men. James Russell, a long-time member, served as president in this period, and is credited with holding the organization together and slowly bringing Zulu back to the forefront."

"In the 1960s, [Zulu SA&PC] 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"."

According to that Wikipedia article, in response to those pressures, from 1965 to 1966 the Zulu SA&PC continued to parade wearing grass skirts but during those years stopped wearing blackface. However, from 1967 on that krewe returned to the custom of blackening their skin.

"Zulu came under pressure from portions of the black community who thought the krewe presented an undignified image. The king resigned and the parade was almost cancelled, but Zulu survived and was a main attraction by 1969".
Furthermore, in 1973 the Zulu SA&PC began recruiting members regardless of race. And regardless of race, members of the Zulu S&PC wear black facial paint during their annual Mardi Gras Parade.

Why do members of the Zulu Social Aid & Pleasure Club wear blackface?
From my online research, the reasons most often given (together or separately) are that the Zulus SA&PC and their costuming is -or at least started out as - a parody of White Mardi Gras krewes, it is tradition, and the parade (and therefore the method of parading) is done just for fun (and therefore shouldn’t be judged).

The "Zulu Mardi Gras parade" as fun is part of the overacrching contemporary (if not traditional) approach to Mardi Gras parades. Although I've never attended any Mardi Gras parade, I don't discount that they are fun. However, just because something is fun, doesn't mean it can't be critiqued. That said, I prefer to focus on the two other reasons that I found mentioned in online articles for the Zulu S&PC's blackening up custom:

Blackface as Parody Of White Mardi Gras Krewes
"Zulu is a predominantly black group that, during the Carnival season, wears grass skirts and blackface makeup in parody of stereotypes from the early 1900s."

From "The Zulu Parade of Mardi Gras" [two comments by Ari Kelman]
"The Zulu parade emerged around the turn of the twentieth century and grew out of New Orleans's powerful African American community. Members of benevolent organizations, groups that engaged in community organizing, decided that if Mardi Gras was going to be segregated, they would begin a Krewe (a Mardi Gras club) of their own. They crowned a king, who wore a lard can atop his head and held a banana stalk as a scepter, mocking the class privilege of most white Carnival Krewes...

I don't think Zulu is just about fun, just as all of the Mardi Gras parades have multiple meanings. In this case, Zulu is about the city's African-American community asserting its right to parade in public spaces, to subvert racist images, and to participate in civic culture. Given New Orleans's extraordinarily complicated racial dynamics, these are important and powerful impulses. And so Zulu isn't just about fun; it's also about people asserting their citizenship."

From "The Zulu Parade of Mardi Gras" [comment by Lawrence Powell]
"That Zulu was founded just as segregation was hardening and racial violence was on the upswing helps answer the question. New Orleans's bloodiest race riot -- the Robert Charles riot -- had occurred nine years earlier. Dissent from racial orthodoxy had become dangerous. By embracing and amplifying white stereotypes of black character, Zulu was a safe way to mock the mockers. Its clownish royalty punctured the pretensions of the ermine-bedecked white elite. As Thomas Brothers explains in Louis Armstrong's New Orleans, Zulu's deployment of double-edged racial symbolism was "a classic example of carnivalesque release of class tensions with the special twist of African American signifying." The strategy made the black bourgeoise uncomfortable, however."

Blackening Up As Tradition
"Established in the early 1900′s, the Zulu Krewe, initially known as the “Tramps,” developed first as a marching group. According to legend, its members adopted the idea for the group from a popular vaudeville skit from the period, “There Never Was and Will Never Be a King Like Me,” dressing up in grass skirts and wearing blackface, traditions that continue today. Zulu royalty has counted among its kings, Louis Armstrong , who served in 1949 and sport special “float characters of Zululand,” including the Big Shot, the Witch Doctor and the Soulful Warriors…

The organization was designed to provide blacks with a way to socialize during Jim Crow era and segregation, and later, as a verhicle to provide its members with much needed burial insurance in a time when African Americans were unable to buy such policies. As a side benefit, it was also a way for New Orleans’s black residents to participate in the city’s official Mardi Gras celebrations—which until the 1960′s was mostly a “whites only” affair—by holding their own parades and balls and crowning faux royalty. Of all the throws to rain down from the many floats in the parades during carnival, the Zulu coconut or “Golden Nugget” is the most sought after."

“Everyone who rides in Zulu wears blackface. Everyone. (Or maybe just the men.) That means when white people ride in Zulu, they wear blackface too. It's tradition. You don't question tradition. Or do you?"

With regard to blackface being a tradition, it should also be noted that from the late 19th century until the mid 20th century, it was traditional for Black actors as well as White actors to wear blackface.
"In both the United States and Britain, blackface was most commonly used in the minstrel performance tradition, but it predates that tradition, and it survived long past the heyday of the minstrel show. White blackface performers in the past used burnt cork and later greasepaint or shoe polish to blacken their skin and exaggerate their lips, often wearing woolly wigs, gloves, tailcoats, or ragged clothes to complete the transformation. Later, black artists also performed in blackface...

In the Theater Owners Booking Association (TOBA), an all-black vaudeville circuit organized in 1909, blackface acts were a popular staple....For example, one of the most famous stars of Haverly's European Minstrels was Sam Lucas, who became known as the "Grand Old Man of the Negro Stage". Lucas later played the title role in the 1914 cinematic production of Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin. From the early 1930s to the late 1940s, New York City's famous Apollo Theater in Harlem featured skits in which almost all black male performers wore the blackface makeup and huge white painted lips, despite protests that it was degrading from the NAACP. The comics said they felt "naked" without it."

Editor's Comment
With regard to "tradition", customs that occur over time become tradition. Since the Zulu Social Aid & Pleasure Club celebrated their one hundred anniversary of marching in Mardi Gras parades in 2009, there's no doubt that that organization's distinctive costuming is tradition.

With regard to "parody", it seems to me that the population being parodied by the blackface traditions of the Mardi Gras Zulus are Black people and Black African people in general, and KwaZulu people in particular. And it also seems to me that the Zulu S&PC's much sought after coconut “throw” is too close to the “black people as monkey” meme. I’m not one of those folk who think that negative stereotypes and pejorative words - For example, I don't believe that the “n word” should or can be reclaimed.

I believe that it’s important for people to be aware that the depictions of the Zulus by the Zulu SA&PC have nothing whatsoever to do with the KwaZulu people. In my opinion, no matter how much fun this parade is, and regardless of the fact that its members' costumes started as a way to safely mock White Mardi Gras customs, I believe that those costumes and that organization's name disrespect the South African KwaZulu's rich traditions, though no disrespect was intended. Although I have no association with the Zulu Social Aid & Pleasure Club, I am taking the liberty of apologizing to the KwaZulu people for this unintended disrespect.

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  1. The organization's name is Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club

  2. Anonymous,

    My apologies.

    Thanks for alerting me to that careless mistake regarding this organization's name. When I wrote this post, I was aware that that organization served and still serves an important role of providing aid (help) to its members.

    I will correct the organization's name in the post.

  3. You should note that the first Zulu king arrived on the Mississippi wearing a lard bucket atop his head as a crown, mocking Rex. Also, Mardi Gras' local take on the tradition has been one of satire and mockery in the Greek tragedy sense. I'm not sure if it's safe to say the Greek tragedy aspect is "tradition," as defined in your article, but nearly every Mardi Gras krewe uses the Mardi Gras parade as a form of satirical protest; a tragedy in its own form.

  4. Also, local laws prohibit float riders and parade marchers from revealing their identities- - in most cases. There are exceptions, however, such as marching bands not having to cover their faces, etc.

    Nice research! I really enjoyed reading your article.

    1. I appreciate you taking the time to add that information, James F Thomas IV!

      Thanks also for the compliment.

      Since YouTube changed its embedding code, videos before a certain date don't play. I've been going back and fixing the code in old Pancocojams posts, but I missed this one until I noted it after going to this page because of your comments. Thanks for that also!