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.