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."

    The debate may hinge on who makes the rules

    Some Zulu officials insist that seeing white float riders donning black makeup simply does not conjure notions of racist blackface.
    "I see it just the opposite because it's an exchange of culture," said Carter, who is African-American. "When our white brothers and sisters engage in Zulu, that's a recognition of us better understanding each other's cultures."
    Indeed, the sight of a white person -- whose neck is often exposed below the black face paint -- might connote among locals a person liberal on matters of race, respected enough by Zulu's overwhelmingly black membership to merit an invitation.
    For his part, Gross said he's "never, not once, considered myself wearing blackface."
    "We're not trying to disguise the fact that we're whatever race underneath," he said. "I'm not out there on Mardi Gras morning trying to pretend I'm not a white guy."
    New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, center, and Zulu members pose in 2012 before the group's parade.
    The outcome, however, isn't always so neat. The founder of a New Orleans-based cocktail festival and conference went to great lengths to apologize in 2017 after she was invited to ride in the Zulu parade and, with black paint on her face, took part in a Facebook video with a caption that said the makeup made her "lose all (her) Media Skills." The phrase was attributed to her husband, who resigned in its wake from the festival company.
    In a piece last month titled, "The Zulu Club once scrubbed off the blackface; can it be convinced to do so again?" columnist Jarvis DeBerry of The Times-Picayune pressed Zulu officials on the club's competing explanations for why parade participants paint their faces. For two years in the mid-1960s, DeBerry writes, the club traded makeup for masks, noting that the then-king told a newspaper: "We are moving with the times."
    Back to the modern day, DeBerry, who is black, issues this admonition: "If Zulu doesn't change, if it continues to demand that its members paint their faces black, please don't misconstrue that as permission for anybody else to do the same."
    The leader of the nonprofit Dialogue on Race Louisiana, which hosts community conversations, took a similar view.
    "If it was me, I wouldn't use black paint ... because it looks like Jim Crow blackface that whites used," Maxine Crump said, noting another complication of Zulu's makeup justification: History books tend to show African Zulu warriors wearing face paint that's brightly colored, not black.
    But, she acknowledged, the right to choose how its parade looks lies squarely with Zulu's African-American leaders.
    "It's like the N-word," said Crump, recognized as the first black woman to live in a dorm at Louisiana State University. "To me, you can't tell an African-American that they can't use the N-word because they have taken a word used against them and used it in their own cultural context, and nobody can call that the same thing.
    "If Zulus have done that with blackface, ... they can use it the way they want to," she said. "And if they decide that white riders can wear blackface, then OK."
    That permission, though, ends the moment the parade disbands, Crump said.
    "If they wore their same Zulu masks at a Halloween, then it's disrespectful," she said. "Only in the context of the Zulu parade is this worn. It's never appropriate to dress in Zulu costume outside the Krewe of Zulu."

    Zulus want to clarify -- but not change -- the picture

    Such deference generally has been the practice of New Orleans' political leaders and its luminaries, white and black. And until the latest scandals involving Virginia's governor and others, the matter of Zulu's black makeup existed as just another long-accepted quirk of America's quirkiest city.
    Landrieu, who earned praise in 2017 for his bracingly honest speech about his push to remove New Orleans' Confederate monuments, and Morial, now president of the National Urban League, both participated for years -- without black makeup -- in Zulu events leading up to and including the parade on Carnival's high holy day. None ever drew controversy, though both declined to comment for this story.
    Spike Lee rides in Zulu's 2018 parade.
    Lee, who recently announced he'll boycott Prada and Gucci over their blackface-reminiscent products, rode last year as the Zulu parade's celebrity grand marshal. His publicist did not respond to CNN's requests for comment.
    As such, Zulu leaders haven't sought to publicize the nuances of their tradition beyond their own ranks -- until now.
    "With the onset of the internet, we probably should have been pumping the fact that black makeup wasn't blackface," Banks said. "But we were fine; it wasn't affecting us. And then all this blew up.
    "Maybe with this attention, people will get a clearer picture," he said.
    Not everyone is buying it, though. New Orleans activists who pushed for the removal of the city's Confederate monuments protested last month outside Zulu's headquarters, demanding its members quit "perpetuating these racist images."
    "They know good and damn well that this blackface has its roots in minstrelsy, and they are the modern-day minstrels," Malcolm Suber of the group Take 'Em Down NOLA said, The New Orleans Advocate reported.
    Far from cowed, some Zulu members, in demonstrators' full view, responded by smearing on their parade makeup and pacing the sidewalk, The Advocate and CNN affiliate WVUE reported.
      The act boldly mirrored the club's repeated answer to recent implications or outright suggestions that it ditch black face paint.
      "That would somehow indicate that we were complicit of the disrespect of black people for 115 years," Banks said. "That's no way going to happen."