The black leaders of an iconic Mardi Gras parade want you to know their 'black makeup is NOT blackface'

Zulu Social Aid & Pleasure Club members celebrate Mardi Gras in 2017 in New Orleans.

(CNN)When one of New Orleans' most cherished parades rolls today, float riders -- African-American and white -- will greet the screaming throngs wearing lofty feather headdresses, crinkly grass skirts and the sort of black face paint that most anywhere else might draw gasps and cries of racism.

Some 1,500 men and women, their faces blackened, will ride along 4.5 miles of the city's most storied avenues in the full light of Mardi Gras morning as part of the Zulu Social Aid & Pleasure Club's annual parade. They'll mug for TV cameras and snap social media selfies, all while sporting makeup similar in appearance to the kind that in recent weeks has sparked a national firestorm.
After resurfacing in long-buried archives, photos of white officials -- Virginia's governor, Florida's secretary of state and police officers in Baton Rouge, Louisiana -- involved in blackface drew swift mea culpas. So did clothing gaffes on the theme involving singer Katy Perry and the fashion houses Gucci and Prada. Calls for resignations and boycotts are still going strong.
      Louis Armstrong reigns as King Zulu in 1949.
      But Zulu club officials, among them some of New Orleans' most prominent black business and elected leaders, aren't sorry. They say their Carnival getups have nothing to do with the racist minstrel shows and offensive depictions implicit in the blackface legacy that demeans African-Americans -- even when the black makeup is worn by the club's white members.
        And they aren't making any changes to a century-old custom practiced by Louis Armstrong during his reign as Zulu king, and, more recently, promoted openly by avowed civil rights advocates, from former mayors Marc Morial and Mitch Landrieu to filmmaker Spike Lee.
          Now, though, for the first time since a backlash during the civil rights surge of the 1960s, Zulu dignitaries are taking steps to explain the message they mean to send with their parade costumes, especially the painted faces. The move owes directly to the recent public maelstrom over blackface and a modern media landscape that spreads local culture far beyond its often-complex origins, they said.
          "Black makeup is NOT the same as 'blackface,'" reads the bolded, underscored opening line of a news release issued last month by the club in consultation with supporters, including US Rep. Cedric Richmond, a New Orleans attorney who chaired the Congressional Black Caucus in the opening years of the Trump administration.
          Zulu members parade on Mardi Gras in 2018 in New Orleans.
          "Blackface is pretending that black people are less than human; the black makeup that we wear has nothing to do with that," said City Councilman Jay Banks, a onetime Zulu king who now serves as chairman of the organization's board.
          "Our costumes are warrior-like," he told CNN, "and they have nothing to do with the buffoonishness when these idiots do blackface."
          The sentiment was echoed by Andrew Gross, a white entrepreneur who's paraded with Zulu since 2004 and who said he's "never had a single soul say anything" to him about his black parade makeup.
          "If someone misconstrues that, I 100% respect that. You can't blame people for how they feel," he told CNN. "But I think if they understood the relevance of it, being a Zulu, for me, a white guy from Uptown New Orleans, ... is just such an honor for me. It's opened up so many doors. ...
          "If my Zulu brothers want me to mask this way," he said, "I'm going to mask this way."

          Intentions and impressions are at odds

          When Banks sees his fellow Zulus in black makeup, he said, the racist context of blackface does not cross his mind.
          "I can tell you on my right arm and my grandson, I do not see that," Banks said, who described with pride his father as a key local leader of Martin Luther King Jr.'s Southern Christian Leadership Conference and his mother as one of the first African-Americans to graduate from Tulane University.
          The costumes, Banks explained, pay homage to the Zulu people of southern Africa, who in the late 19th century drove out British colonists "with sticks and spears." Inspired by a 1909 theater skit about the Zulus, the group's earliest members donned their notion of tribal garb and, too poor to afford masks, mimicked Zulu war paint to comply with city rules that Carnival parade participants hide their identities, he said.
          Still, their intention hasn't always been clear cut. The founding Zulus' king had a "lard can" crown and "banana stalk" scepter, and to this day, members give out coveted, hand-decorated coconuts to parade-goers. News reports in the 1950s indicated "a wide feeling that the parade degrades and ridicules the Negro race," citing an NAACP leader. The following decade, at the "height of Black awareness," the club's own website recalls, "dressing in a grass skirt and donning a black face were seen as being demeaning," and Zulu's "membership dwindled to approximately 16 men."
          Zulu float riders parade in 2018 in New Orleans.
          Still, the club endured, in part because of its other, arguably more vital role as a social safety net. In the Jim Crow era, members provided insurance, of sorts, to help black residents barred from bank loans cover a sick relative's treatment or bury a loved one. Today, the club still delivers Thanksgiving meals and Christmas toys to the needy, hosts nights out against crime and helps students make their way to college.
          "Zulu is much more than a just a one-and-done," said state Sen. Troy Carter, who has participated in club events for decades, including donning black makeup as a float rider. "Mardi Gras is just one part of who we are."
          Over time, Zulu's ranks swelled again. To help boost dues and, later, in step with a 1991 City Council order requiring krewes to integrate or lose the right to process on public streets, the proportion of white members climbed. Now, about 10% of riders are not African-American, most of them white, Banks said.
          It's undoubtedly one reason the matter of the makeup -- a requirement for all who parade -- has roared back to life in light of the scandals in Virginia and elsewhere.
          "To Zulu's credit, they don't discriminate," state Sen. J.P. Morrell said. "The issue becomes much more nuanced when you have white people doing blackface next to black people."