Zulu Tradition or Blackface? Forum Debate Searches for Answers

By Lacee Ancar

Photos by Lacee Ancar

About 110 years.

That is how long it has been since Zulu made their first appearance in a Mardi Gras parade. Today, the Krewe of Zulu hosts one of the biggest parades in New Orleans, and the Zulu painted coconut, known as the golden nugget, is one of the most sought after prizes of Mardi Gras. People travel from all around the world to see the Zulu King and the krewe as they march the streets dressed in elaborate costumes and painted in their signature black face paint.

This past Mardi Gras season saw this Zulu tradition questioned in light of national backlash against the public officials who wore blackface. On Monday, March 11, 2019, the NOLA Black Media Collective hosted a panel that included representatives of Take ‘Em Down Nola and local cultural historians to discuss the impact of these racialized symbols and traditions.

“We have appreciation for Zulu as an organization. We simply want them to consider refiguring the paint that’s now in black face formation into something that’s truly honorable of people of African descent,” said Angela Kinlaw, a New Orleans resident, who is a member Take ‘Em Down Nola. The group protested Zulu’s masking tradition during the recent Mardi Gras season.

Kinlaw said that Take ‘Em Down Nola’s goal is to start a dialogue with Zulu, and perhaps update an outdated tradition. Although they had previously committed to attending the panel, a city council representative who is a member of Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club, and the Zulu historian, both did not show up.

“We’ve been attempting to have this conversation for some time, and it’s disappointing for the community because they want to hear from Zulu,” she added.

Many residents who attended the public forum at the Historic Carver Theater on Orleans Avenue said that some form of conversation needed to be held regarding the Zulu face paint. “I think that black face is black face, and I think it is especially egregious when the white members of Zulu dress in black face; they should change it,” said Jeffrey Thomas, the moderator of the panel discussion and publisher and editor of Think504.com. Thomas said that he is an ally of Take ‘Em Down Nola, but he is not a member. “I support the premise that blackface is a bad thing in general, including at Zulu,” he added.

Some Zulu members hold a different perspective about the face painting tradition, and participated in the forum to provide context on the tradition, as it is used in krewe.

“Had it not been for the [blackface] issue coming to surface in Virginia, we would not even be talking about this,” said David Belfield, the 1994 Zulu King, who joined in on the panel discussion. He believes that because white officials, including Virginia’s governor, Florida’s secretary of state and police officers from Baton Rouge have come under fire in recent headlines, and because of the resurfaced photos of them in blackface, the media has directed its attention to Zulu. Supporters and members of Zulu do not see any correlation between black face and the Zulu face painting tradition, he said.

“A small group of the community thinks that we’re minstrels, the majority does not agree with them,” he added. Belfield said that every year there is a large crowd for the Zulu parade because the people of the community love and support Zulu. He said that blackface is not Zulu’s issue to fight. Belfield believes Take ‘Em Down Nola should sit together with Zulu in a non-confrontational environment to discuss their different perspectives and if possible to offer alternate costume design ideas.

“It is an outdated practice that started in 1909; it is almost 2020, and I think they should modify their practice to fit the time of day,” said Susan Henry, the general manager for WBOK Radio, one of the media outlets that organized the forum. “It may have been appropriate in the early 1900s during the Jim Crow era; however, it’s not appropriate today,” she added.

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