NEW ORLEANS — Members of the Zulu Social Aid & Pleasure Club struck a defiant tone Thursday night after members of Take ’Em Down Nola arrived at their doorstep to protest the krewe’s century-old tradition of riders painting their faces black on Mardi Gras Day.
The push by Take ’Em Down Nola for Zulu to change its practice comes as the use of blackface makes headlines around the country after several Virginia lawmakers were found wearing blackface in college photographs.
“We seem to have a group in the city that is stuck in the last century,” Malcolm Suber, one of Take ’Em Down Nola’s organizers, said during a press conference across from Zulu’s North Broad Street clubhouse.
The activity drew the attention of club members who filed outside to face off against those who no longer want them to paint their faces.
“I think they're intelligent men, and I think they're gonna heed to our suggestions to take it off,” said one protester who carried a sign that read “Take It Off.”
“I ain't taking it off,” responded one Zulu member who held face paint in his hand. He and a handful of other members then painted their faces. Minutes later, a brass band rounded the corner at Orleans Avenue, and Zulu members and their friends danced in the street.
“Don’t mess with Zulu, don’t mess with Zulu,” they chanted at one point as the band played on.
Zulu leaders did not respond Thursday to a request for comment from WWL-TV, but they released a statement last week that was blunt in its view about the practice of its riders painting their faces: “Black makeup is NOT the same as ‘blackface,’” the headline read.
“We think it's a shame Zulu tries to confuse this issue by talking about black makeup instead of blackface,” Suber said. “It's the same thing.”
“Blackface and black makeup are two totally different things,” said City Councilman Jay Banks, who reigned as King Zulu in 2016.
He pushed back against Take ’Em Down Nola’s view, saying that blackface is a “demeaning, disgusting, very hateful thing.”
“That is nothing we have ever participated in. The fact that our makeup is black has nothing to do with what people do when they blackface,” Banks said.
Clarence Becknell, Zulu’s historian, recently told WWL-TV that early krewe members painted their faces black after seeing a traveling show about Zulu warriors in 1909.
RELATED: Mardi Gras 2019 Parade Schedule
He said that those early members then decided to paint their faces since they were poor laborers who could not otherwise afford masks and as a way to honor the South African Zulu warriors.
“They know good and damn well that this blackface has its roots in minstrelsy, and they are the modern-day minstrels,” Suber said Thursday.
But Banks said the club will not change its traditions “because of somebody else’s delusion.”
“The fact is that the Zulu warrior tribe was one of the strongest on the planet. They beat the British Army,” Banks said. “At the end of the day, there’s nothing subservient (or) buffoonish about that. That is what blackface does. Not what we do. We do totally different things all together.”