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The Zulu Parade of Mardi Gras


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.

We asked several scholars to reflect on the meaning of race in the Zulu parade.

Do you live in New Orleans? How did you get to know the city?

Raphael Cassimere, Jr.: I'm a 6th generation New Orleanian. I lived in New Orleans all of my life except for three years when I was in graduate school. Katrina forced me to relocate to Houston where I still have an apartment.

Ari Kelman: I don't live in New Orleans now. I did live there, though, from 1994-1997. I learned what I know about the city by tending bar at night — a New Orleans tradition — and visiting the city's libraries and archives during the day. Pouring drinks in New Orleans, both Uptown or in the Quarter, like I did, is a great way to get a sense of the city's nocturnal rhythms. I met all kinds of folks as last call approached. And then I was off to some after-hours place to listen to music and meet more people. After sleeping in, I'd wake up and head to the Historic New Orleans Collection, the Public Library, or Tulane's Special Collections for a day of research. I could spend all day thinking about the connections between the city's past and present. It was an extraordinary life, though looking back I'm not sure how I had the energy to keep it up. Anyway, I wrote most of the first draft for my book while I was still there. What an amazing place.

Lawrence Powell: I live on the outskirts of the city but work in the city. I learned its history and culture by teaching Louisiana history (one of my service courses when I arrived here 28 years ago). Voting rights work and anti-racist politics over the years has deepened and broadened my knowledge. So did a seven year stint working in public housing.

Can you tell us something about the Zulu parade and how it got started?

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.

Lawrence Powell: It got launched in 1909 by black working-class men — dock workers, wagon drivers, bartenders, hustlers, pimps — from a part of town known as "the battleground." This is roughly the area where city hall and the Superdome now sit.

Is Zulu about racism? Is it a form of dissent?

Raphael Cassimere, Jr.: No, it is not about racism, but was considered an alternative to the "whites only" activities of Carnival. It began as a spoof, but gained popularity with working class and some of middle class as time passed. It was a subtle form of protest against the powers that be without crossing the line of "expected and accepted" racial behavior.

Ari Kelman: There are all kinds of ways to interpret the meaning of Zulu and the notion of an African American man wearing blackface, which was typically the hallmark of the minstrel show. The most obvious of these readings is to view the use of blackface as an attempt to seize upon racist symbols and invert them as demonstrations of African American power. That African Americans choose to wear blackface demystifies racist cultural symbols and norms, robbing those symbols of some of their sting.

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.

How much fun is Zulu? Is it just for fun?

Raphael Cassimere, Jr.: I never personally experienced it because Zulu paraded uptown and we lived in the Lower Ninth Ward, the farthest distance from "uptown." I remember my father leaving home early in the morning on Mardi Gras to catch the parade which began at 7am. I stopped attending parades as a protest against white racism in the early 60s and never returned.

My wife would bring my children, and both of them marched in Zulu with their school marching bands.

Ari Kelman: I've been to two Zulu parades, and both were a great time: filled with laughter. For years, two coconuts that I was thrown at the Zulu parade in 1995 were among my most prized New Orleans mementos. That said, 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.

When Louis Armstrong was king of Mardi Gras, but was subject to the segregation, what message did that send about New Orleans to the rest of the world?

Raphael Cassimere, Jr.: I was in second grade at the time and remember it well. My guess is that most locals were not surprised since the hotels & public places were all segregated at the time. For some strange reason many people outside the South assumed that New Orleans was "different" with respect to racial custom and probably didn't realize that segregation existed. In any case I was seven at the time and don't remember much about the response to it.

Ari Kelman: When Louis Armstrong was crowned King of Zulu, it thrust New Orleans's and the South's segregated institutions into the national and international spotlights. Armstrong was among the most famous people in the world, a cultural ambassador for the United States, and generally associated with artistic genius and social kindness. That he was denied access to segregated facilities showed the world how deep Jim Crow ran in the American South. If even Louis Armstrong, upon returning to his hometown as a favored son, couldn't sleep in certain hotels or eat in certain restaurants, that indicated the color line was absolute. At the same time, Armstrong's obvious pain and outrage, coming from a man typically associated with generosity and good times, had a deep impact on observers, who were left with the impression of a region in turmoil.

Lawrence Powell: It sent more of a message to black America, who accused him of Uncle Tomming. The criticism was shortsighted and unfair.

Did the Zulu parade change during the civil rights movement?

Raphael Cassimere, Jr.: As a result of protests by civil rights activists (myself included), the original club of basically laborers were co-opted by the middle class who wished to project a more "positive" image of African Americans. I remember circulating petitions against the traditional parade which seem to portray Africans in a negative light. There were some middle class blacks who defended the traditional parade, but they were in a minority.

Ari Kelman: The Civil Rights era was complicated for Zulu. What had been an important and subtle outlet for African Americans in New Orleans, open to many interpretations, suddenly was a contested ritual. Some African American observers were not happy with the use of blackface, which suggested that participants in Zulu were happily playing the fool for white New Orleans, shuffling and dancing in other words. Advocates of Black Power, especially, suggested that the Zulu parade degraded African Americans and undermined the credibility for which activists were fighting.

Lawrence Powell: During the Civil Rights movement the Zulu organization witnessed a struggle between working-class traditionalists and middle-class reformers who wanted to clean up its image in the name of dignity and respectability. The reformers eventually won by joining the organization, but not without embracing its black-face traditions. Since then Zulu has become integrated and has accommodated to the needs of the modern tourist industry. No longer sponsored by local black tavern owners, the Zulus have abandoned meandering through black neighborhoods according to a route dictated by the beer-selling agenda of local sponsors and now precede Rex down St. Charles Avenue for a traditional toast in front of city hall.

Is it possible to walk not dance in New Orleans?

Raphael Cassimere, Jr.: Of course one can walk, dance, crawl, run, or otherwise move around New Orleans, in or out of step with a musical beat. One can be as creative as he/she wishes without fear of censorship. Eventually, you may be praised or imitated for your "originality."

New Orleans is often presented as a racially harmonious city but Zulu, by its existence, implies tensions that haven't been resolved. Can you comment on that?

Raphael Cassimere, Jr.: People here generally had a false sense that we were better off than in Mississippi or north Louisiana. I believe that there is more racial tension now than 20-30 years ago. Many whites who moved out were fearful or antagonistic toward the city. On the other hand many blacks are too possessive of the city, often asserting that "this is a black city" which of course means different things to different people. Katrina has created a new dynamic with new demographic implications for the racial composition of the city.

Ari Kelman: The idea that New Orleans is racially harmonious now or that the city ever was in the past is absurd. The city is far too complicated racially to be harmonious. With its rich multicultural heritage, New Orleans has always had one of the most complex social dynamics in the United States. It has non-British colonial roots, laws drawn from the Napoleonic Code, a population whose roots can be traced back to Europe, Africa, and the Caribbean. It has never been clear exactly whose culture predominates in New Orleans, because there is no dominant culture there. Which is a wonderful thing, but doesn't make for much harmony. Instead, there is constant negotiation in New Orleans, and Zulu is just one more negotiating party, representing the interests of its members, playing with symbols typically associated with racist whites, and allowing African Americans to carve out space for themselves in the streets during Mardi Gras.

Lawrence Powell: Actually, Zulu, by virtue of having integrated says more about racial harmony than racial tensions. To the extent that Zulu reflected tensions post-Katrina, they were intra-racial debates over whether throwing a party while so many of members remained homeless was a wise idea.

New Orleans has always been good at co-existing across the color line (racial harmony is too strong a characterization), thanks to its enjoyment culture. Whether Katrina has changed the dynamic remains to be seen. The jury is still out, so to speak.

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