Written February 23, 2019
Take Em Down NOLA, a local protest group in New Orleans, is demanding Zulu Social Aid & Pleasure Club to end their 110-year-old tradition of “blackface.” Making national headlines, USA Today reported in a news conference held on Thursday that the group stated they were dedicated to “removing all symbols of white supremacy in New Orleans.”
According to WWL-TV, Take Em Down are advocating for change because of how the makeup “Reinforces racist stereotypes.” They also demanded the Krewe of Zulu ban wearing dark face paint in the upcoming parade. “It is no longer tenable for Zulu to pretend that wearing blackface is not reinforcing racial stereotyping of black people,” said Take Em Down member Malcolm Suber.
Nevertheless, Zulu Social Aid & Club responded to the movement’s requests in an attempt to avert the criticism they’ve received. The club distributed a statement stating Zulu parade costumes “Bear no resemblance to those worn by blackface minstrel performers during the turn of the century.” Additionally, the statement argued Zulu’s costumes are meant to honor South African garments worn by warriors. During the post-Reconstruction era of the South, the club insists poverty made masks unattainable for the Krewe, so makeup was used instead.
The tradition goes back to 1909: a story in which black laborers in New Orleans who called themselves “The Tramps” saw a skit titled “There Never Was and Never Will Be a King Like Me.” The men were so amused by the depiction of the Zulu king that they decided to make it their own Mardi Gras tradition to parade as Zulus themselves.
This is where the controversy strikes: Many members of the group are black and are continuing to stand by the tradition. Suber told Nola.com, “Some traditions are bad traditions.” The important question in 2019 is if the tradition should continue to stand or if it should be completely eradicated — and Zulu will make continuous efforts to uphold it.