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Zulu Blackface: The Real Story!

 

Background of this Tradition has been misquoted, assaulted and misunderstood for Years! Here's the REAL story on what it's about!

 

New Orleans, La. ..... They're one of the most recognized krewes that New Orleans has had since it's conception in 1909. The Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club, Inc., has one of the most heavily attended parades in Carnival. The others being Rex, Endymion, Orpheus, and Bacchus.

This krewe, however, does something each and every season, that seems to rub some in the Big Easy, locals and tourists, the wrong way. It's one of two most controversial aspects of the Mardi Gras celebration that has been held over from long ago.

Like the flambeaux carriers, most look at it, as only tradition, while some others call it hidden self-inflicted racism. Self Racism is the act by which one level of people hold distain and prejudice against another level of people, but within the same class or group of people. In this case, it's the African Americans, Creoles of light color, holding their darker skin brethren up to ridicule.

King Zulu 1949 Louis Armstrong arriving by tug at New Basin Canal

 Self Racism, by the Zulu's, is something they have been accused of before, and in a big way.  The coconuts, the afro wigs, tights with the second line dance in tennis shoes, the drinking, all were not as bad as the one act many saw as the epitome' of one giant  run of insults to blacks. The Zulu black face.

One of the most misunderstood aspects of the Zulu's has long been it's use of the Vaudevillian Black face. Many modern Afro-Americans feel offended by it's continued use by the Club. Others however know it's true origins and understand it's deeper meaning. Join us, now, as we discover the true hidden nature of "Zulu Blackface: The Real Story"

It was 1901, the Zulu's weren't the Zulu's, and a form of entertainment called "Vaudeville", was popular in New Orleans as varied acts poked fun at the Negroes of the time. Whites thought it was funny, but from the Creole periodicals of the time, the blacks really didn't think it at all funny. They hated this kind of minstrel show with all their hearts. Despite the underlying feelings for the practice which was expected of a Vaudeville show, blacks still went to the theater. The theater most blacks were allowed to attend was the Pythian Temple. 

 This page from a 1908 number of Architectural Art and its Allies reproduces the plan for the second-floor theatre in the building known as the Pythian Temple.

A group of African American businessmen erected the Pythian Temple at the corner of Graver and Saratoga (now Loyola Ave.) Streets in about 1908. The biggest financial venture of its kind ever attempted by African-Americans, at the time, the Temple measured 110 feet deep, 64 feet wide and 102 feet tall and cost $201,000. It had offices, a barber shop, a theater and bank facilities on the first floor. The second floor was an opera house.

Some years later the owners of the Pythian Temple added a roof garden to their structure. The new facility became a popular venue for jazz musicians. It is said that Sidney Bechet first played the saxophone with A.J. Piron's band at the Roof Garden. Papa Celestin's Original Tuxedo Jazz Orchestra and Kid Rena's Jazz Band also played there with some regularity. The Pythian Temple went out of black ownership during the 1940s, but the building still stands, though hidden behind a 1950s glass facade just across Loyola Ave. from the Library. The Temple Theatre and the Roof Garden, however, long ago disappeared.

Chief part of that Vaudevillian bag of tools, were Caucasians, and light skinned blacks, who were made up to look black. This was achieved with theatrical face paint. In fact that same type of paint is still used today with some small chemical changes made for the safety of the product.

"The tramps", were a small group of newly formed second liners then, mostly laborers, but some well to do blacks as well, who had planned and were looking forward to putting on their first parade in the neighborhood, during the Mardi Gras. There were no wagons, or cars, no fancy color-coordinated suits ! Just a walking club, with umbrellas and the rare handkerchief. The Walking warriors of today's Zulu's are the club's holdover from those days.

Not being men of any real wealth, in fact, most were barely making ends meet back then. They did what they could to get by with what they had, some however, had a small amount they could spend on such things. In keeping with their name the Tramps, they dressed as hobo's. They marched with raggedy clothes, and floppy hats, but they marched. These parades were held in the back alleyways of the city in or near the Treme' area behind Armstrong park. Little mention of it is made in the Bee, the local Creole paper then. However, the Louisiana Weekly, did try to mention it as often as possible. There were no coconuts, no grass skirts, beads, or any thing else you would recognize today as Zulu. At this time there were no black face used either.

This continued until 1906, when little more dues brought on by a few more members, brought with it some aspirations and dreams of something better. They knew they could never beat the Rex parades held on the main street of town, and the Tramps were determined to use the money for something better. They set about painting Buckboard wagons, pulled by mules and horses, owned by some members and friends, to use in the parades. They turned out to be a big hit. The next significant change came in 1909, when apparently, a name change took place, and a rearrangement of the way the club marched. They were attempting to simply put their back street parade on some level closer to Rex. To do this they needed a theme and other accessories. Floats with mules, Beads, costumes, and of course masks.

Now, some Mardi Gras historians are trying to fill in the gaps of information, in which they have mistakenly labeled the painting of the faces as blacks, and their actions, as poking fun at themselves, or turning the practice around. They have said, blacks of New Orleans mocked the snobbishness and exclusivity of Rex with their own parade. Let's set the record straight here and now! According to the Zulu's official historian themselves, Zulu never has, in the past, and has no plans in the future, to poke fun at the Rex organization. More on this later.

These men of this, then new Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club, simply followed the decor of their new name. They simply did the same thing the vaudevillians had done, during the musical comedy by the group called the Smart Set. They based all their belief's, and practices, on that one comedy show at the Pythian Temple, entitled, "There Never Was and Never Will Be A King Like Me", a skit about a Zulu tribe was what they wanted to portray. So it was grass skirts, and what else they thought they could use to emulate the Zulu's of Africa,( and this is the point, right here) in the Vaudeville comedy skit. For those who missed it, here it is in plain English. It was a walking burlesque show, staged for fun, that's it ! Donning the black face and white eyes, William Story, wore an old tin lard can for a crown and a banana stalk as a scepter. Just as the "king", in the show did! They did this to mimic, the colored vaudeville actors in the comedy skit. They were simply sticking to the comedy show and going for the laugh, and "It was cheap!".

As members of "The Tramps" saw the skit, they came together in a then woodshed on Perdido Street, that was at that time the Tramps den, and re-emerged as "Zulus". The site of the original Zulu Clubhouse in the rear room of a restaurant located at 1100-block of Perdido Street, the building still stands, and is marked by its inscription "Zulu S.A.P. Club" in blue and white tile in the sidewalk at a bus-stop.

With their first appearance as Zulus in the Mardi Gras of 1909 with William Story as King. Members, clad in ragged trousers, paraded on foot to the music of a Jubilee Singing Quartet, including Blackface. This continued for many years. In 1910, the first coconuts were handed from the walking club, in their natural hairy state. But in 1914, King Henry Harris, riding in a buggy, led the Zulus. He smoked Cairo cigarettes and saved the flags that came in the packages for an entire year so that he could lead the Zulus in his "hand-made" smoked flag suit. In 1915, John White continued the now Zulu tradition of parading with a African motif, and ushered in the first use of Floats. Something else he did as well, he stopped the practice of the Blackface. Too many people had come down on the Zulu's for wearing the cheap vaudeville face paint. So the practice was discontinued.

In 1916, with dry good boxes, the Zulus made more floats on spring-wagons and carried four Zulu dukes on it with King John White surrounded by a jungle of Palmetto leaves and green moss. On September 20, of that same year, the Zulus incorporated and became what is now known as the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club, Incorporated. 25 members signed the first document.

In 1917, Zulu King James Robertson, not to be outdone by Rex arriving on a yacht at the foot of Canal Street, had himself rowed through the New Basin Canal in a skiff, the first such occurrence. Robertson, maintaining the Zulu theme, carried a huge hambone for a scepter.. Soon however, that theme would begin an ever evolving nature, in the redefinition of what a Zulu was. World War I began that same year and the Club did not put on a parade again until 1920.

When the Club resumed activities in 1920, King Freddy Brown not only had a float built by members, but he also had an entourage of six dukes. They arrived in the New Orleans Basin Canal in a skiff with a motor. In 1921, King James Robertson  had the first Zulu float constructed by a professional float builder.

In 1922, King Hebert Permillion rented a yacht for $25 and he and his dukes shared the cost for the King's float...the Zulu Club provided the second float and hired a band. The "carnival parade money" was raised by having a dance.

In 1923, when Joseph Kahol was King, a new idea was added which was to last ten years. A male member of the Club impersonated a Zulu Queen. Then 10 years later, 1933, when Allen Leon reigned as King, his Royal Consort was the
Club's first bonafide Queen, Mrs. Mamie Williams. All during these times, Zulu's did not doon a black face and would not for another 5 years. Finally, In 1938, with King Zulu, Leopold Leblanc, the club once again started to use the grass skirt and black face. 

King Zulu and his entourage still arrive via boat, on Lundi Gras, but leave from Poydras Street and the Mississippi River for the boat ride to the foot of Canal Street. Symbolically, King Zulu has made the voyage from his mythical Kingdom, Zululand, to New Orleans.

Zulu still preserves the practices of throwing favors/throws handed out by the Zulus on Mardi Gras Day include the official Zulu doubloon, the Black Bead, thrown for the first time in 1977, and the infamous Zulu Coconut, also referred to as the "Golden Nugget".

Over the years, many prominent citizens portrayed the role of King Zulu. However, the most popular and the most colorful and renown was the world famous trumpet player, Louis "Satchmo" Armstrong, King Zulu 1949.

During the sixties and part of the seventies, it wasn't popular to be a Zulu member. In fact, that very perception of self-inflicted racism which subjected the club to very harsh criticism, mostly behind the blackface practice, nearly wiped out the club. It got so bad that the king of 1961, during a time of high racial tension here in New Orleans, resigned! That period from the sixties to the mid seventies saw the membership drop at one point to a mere 16 men.

Zulu

Zulu on Canal Street in 1998  © Syndey Byrd 1998

 

It has taken many years of patience, membership building, and education, but finally the message is getting out.

Zulu blackface is not about racism, or poking fun at Rex or any other Krewe. The blackface was about a time in the Zulu heritage, a time in their history, when they saw a chance for change and seized it. The Blackface is to remind the Zulu's of who they are. and from where they have come to get to this point.

There is no satire of the white Carnival, and never has been. The history buffs have it all wrong! The only thing that Zulu did was, maybe , just maybe, Zulu unintentionally ridiculed white pomposity by using white notions of black savagery; in short, they reclaimed black stereotypes. But they didn't know that!  In their second procession Zulu's king appeared in blackface, a tradition still maintained. But seeing that play, changed the direction of the Tramps and forever changed the way Black Carnival would evolve in New Orleans. For good or Bad, the Zulu Black Face is here to stay!

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