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The New Orleans Carnival celebration on Tuesday highlighted a controversial local tradition spanning more than 100 years ago.
Every year, members of the city's Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club take off grass skirts, feather headdress, and bone jewelry for the carnival parade.
The Zulu's African-American members – and even some of their white members – also paint their faces black.
This practice is a curiosity that was adopted since the Zulu Club in 1909 to honor their Zulu warriors in South Africa. But in the weeks since Virginia Governor Ralph Northam's yearbook site uncovered photos of a person in Blackface, the national conversation about Blackface has intensified. Now the tradition of the Zulu club is being re-examined.
Zulu is one of the many African American social aid and pleasure clubs in New Orleans. The clubs sponsor charitable projects, serve as gathering places for social gatherings and organize lively parades that run through the streets of the city on Sundays. On Fat Tuesday, huge crowds gather along the parade route to watch the wagons and try to catch a painted coconut, the Zulu prize roll.
"The Zulu club was formed in response to the racism that was present in Carnival, where blacks were not allowed to attend the parade days of historic white social clubs," said historian Shantrelle P. Lewis, who spoke with Blackface Traditions, in an interview with Michele Martin of NPR. For the Zulus, she said, "it was a way to fight something against the racism and segregation that take place in Carnival."
But now some in New Orleans are accusing the Zulu club of racism. Take & # 39; Em Down NOLA, a group that has removed Confederate statues from the city, protested to the Zulu clubhouse last month.
"You know well and damn well that this blackface has its roots in the Minnesota and that modern minnesingers are," said Malcolm Suber of NOLA over the New Orleans Advocate . "They are designed exclusively for the white guests who come to town to attend carnival."
The Zulu club was previously exposed to similar criticism. In 1949, musician Louis Armstrong was seated at the head of the Zulu parade with a black-painted face on a cart. According to a narrative of the Zulu story posted on the group's website, the number of members shrunk to just 16 during the Black Power movement of the 1960s, when the Zulus' grass-skirts and blackface were considered timeless.
In 1965, the Zulus defended themselves from pressure from the African-American community without parrying the typical facial make-up, said Jarvis DeBerry, columnist of the Times Picayune . Instead they marched with masks until two years later she defiantly returned to the traditional complexion.
In the run-up to this year's carnival celebration, the club was unwilling to change its parade costume. In last month's protest at the Take & # 39; Em Down NOLA clubhouse, several Zulu members wore a black face to taunt the demonstrators.
In a statement, the club called the blackface game of the past "a racist and vile form of entertainment" and distanced the makeup of Zulu parade from the blackface worn by people who make fun of African Americans. "Unfortunately, the offensive behavior of these individuals can cause some of these racist acts to be confused with our rich history and traditions – including makeup during the Zulu parade," the statement says.
"If you look at the Zulu club in a tradition of masking and masking … then painting a face is part of the carnival," said Lewis. Proud natives of New Orleans, she said that the Zulu costume was appropriate given the context. "While linked to Minstrelsy, it used to be rooted in the idea of a masquerade."
Also, Lewis says, this is a New Orleans tradition many outsiders simply would not understand.
"New Orleans knows the traditions of New Orleans, and the city was very lonely," said Lewis, reiterating local writers blaming "unsuspecting outsiders" for misunderstandings of local culture.
"Many of our traditions have passed without involvement and observation from people outside of New Orleans, and for the average Black people in New Orleans, including members of my own family, they simply do not associate the Black Face in Zulu with minstrelsy … and they most likely do not consider it an insult. "
" I understand why it's nuanced, "she said. "But you can not take it out of the context from which it was originally created."
This story was edited by Martha Wexler for the radio.