Mar 202017

A screenshot from the Krewe of Zulu’s Facebook post accepting the apology from the “Irish Zulu” group in the St. Patrick’s Day parade. (click for original post)

Owen Courrèges

Owen Courrèges

I’ve always considered Mardi Gras as being a time of unfettered satire. It’s a time when krewes mock and imitate each other without judgment, promoting frivolity solely without the straightjacket of needless social convention. It’s a time when we all pull our collective sticks out of our keisters and start dealing with one another on an individual level, as opposed to one dictated to us by political propaganda.

Alas, we in New Orleans are not above being influenced by our wider culture. We may be open and understanding, but for others, any social commentary, no matter how innocuous and inoffensive, is a never-ending wellspring of umbrage and resentment.

Sadly, this tendency came to light this past week when the Zulu Aid and Pleasure Club, Inc., a.k.a. the “Zulu Parade,” decided to set its sights on “Irish Zulu,” a minor footnote in the Irish Channel St. Patrick’s Day Parade. Irish Zulu has, for the past five years, mimicked the garb of the historically-black Zulu Parade by marching in costume with Irish colors (i.e., red-haired wigs, white and green face-paint, green shirts with grass skirts, etc.).

The depiction made by Irish Zulu is in no way denigrating; it’s just a direct homage to one of New Orleans’ most famous and storied Mardi Gras krewes. There is no sense of mockery, just a tongue-in-cheek impersonation.

Many on Facebook did not agree. A photograph of Irish Zulu started making the rounds, and before you knew it, hundreds of people began expressing their outrage.

That’s all over now. On Friday, in response to the fracas, Zulu posted that it “has not authorized, nor does it condone, the ‘Irish Zulu’ photograph circulating on social media,” and that, furthermore, “[a]ppropriate actions will be taken to address the trademark infringement.”

The Irish Zulu responded with a letter in which they caved entirely and vowed to completely rebrand themselves. Ultimately, Zulu won the exchange with little effort.

Of course, a lawsuit claiming trademark infringement by Zulu would have been entirely baseless – even if Irish Zulu were intended as mockery, they would be protected under the First Amendment as satire. The case is made stronger by the fact that Irish Zulu had no apparent financial motive. Surely, if the Rex Parade could not put the kibosh on ”’Tit Rex,” Zulu could not lower the hammer on Irish Zulu.

Thus, the issue is not really one of “trademark infringement.” No, if there is some pressing, social aspect to Irish Zulu, it is a matter of whether they were inherently offensive to the point that public ire was warranted.

On this point, I have seen a total lack of argumentation. I have delved into dozens of Facebook threads, searching in vain for somebody who could possibly explain to me how Irish Zulu is racist and blatantly offensive to black New Orleanians. Ultimately, I came up with nothing. Multiple people claimed that it constituted “cultural appropriation,” but given that Zulu itself adopts customs from a foreign culture, I could not understand how that could be construed as offensive.

Interestingly, Zulu itself was adopted as a take on Mardi Gras culture – as a type of social satire on the pompous nature of white krewes. Writers generally opined as much during Zulu’s first few decades:

  • “[Zulu] is also dark satire on the pretentious, elite Mardi Gras courts of the white folks’ Rex, Momus, [etc].” –Time Magazine, 1939
  • “[Zulu is] a sort of burlesque of the grander Mardi Gras festivities of the white [parades]”. – The Century, 1928
  • “Zulu’s every act is a satire on self-conscious whites and their pretensions.” – Queen New Orleans: City by the River, Harnett T. Kane 1949

You get the point. The notion that Zulu should be viewed as something distinct from the rest of Mardi Gras, as some sort of sacred cow, is simply not borne out by history. Indeed, Zulu itself — with its stereotypical tribal costumes and minstrel-show blackface makeup — was once seen as offensive by black activists.

By the 1960’s, major black rights organizations began to shun Zulu as an offensive relic of the past. Oretha Castle called the group “a disgrace.” The Crisis, the official publication of the NAACP, opined in 1961 that “[r]espectable New Orleans Negro citizens have long protested against the clownish antics of the Zulus[.]” They further noted that “African students in America, some at least, did protest the ‘Zulu Farce.’”

The Louisiana Weekly put the matter in even stronger terms: “[W]e resent and repudiate the Zulu Parade, in which Negroes are paid by white merchants to wander through the city drinking to excess, dressed as uncivilized savages and throwing cocoanuts like monkeys.”

“This caricature,” the Weekly continued, “does not represent us.”

By 1965, the popular movement against Zulu in the black community had taken its toll. At one point, only 15 members remained in the entire organization. It was only through community efforts that Zulu was kept alive.

That movement, it should be noted, was based on the simple premise that the people of New Orleans should preserve their traditions and refrain from taking offense at every turn. Instead of Mardi Gras being an exclusive, segregated affair, Zulu helped transform it into a holiday that all New Orleanians could enjoy. Zulu may not followed a straight line to conveying a positive message, but it has played a crucial role in integrating our city. That message has sustained Zulu through hard times.

Zulu is crucial to the fabric of our city, which is precisely why it needs to be open to mimicry and satire. After all, what is Mardi Gras but a farce? If Zulu sets itself apart, we will all be the worse for it. That is something we clearly need to move past.

Owen Courrèges, a New Orleans attorney and resident of the Garden District, offers his opinions for on Mondays. He has previously written for the Reason Public Policy Foundation.

  28 Responses to “Owen Courreges: Was ‘Irish Zulu’ really something to get upset about?”

  1. Before the Irish Endymion parade I will fill up at the Irish Exxon then stop and pick up some Irish Popeye’s. Read about it over at the Irish Uptown Messenger.

    • Love it

    • TraveLAr,

      If you’re implying that there’s trademark infringement, that’s ridiculous. Irish Zulu wasn’t selling merchandise, nobody was confusing their subkrewe with the actual Zulu parade, and they qualified as a light-hearted parody of Zulu (which cannot, legally, be restricted). So no, it isn’t like just slapping “Irish” before any trademark.

      • McDonald’s is a “food” place with a trademark. You know one can’t get away with a name like Irish McDonald’s food place. Zulu is a parade/social club with a trademark. You shouldn’t be able to get away with another parade/social club using that trademark. It implies a connection. Don’t call it Irish Endymion or Irish Toth either. However, Irish Coconut Parade Social And Benevolent Society sounds just fine.

    • you have way too much time on your hands.. get real.

  2. Has an opinion on the New Orleans Zulu tradition ever been solicited from an African Zulu?

    • Deux,

      I’ve heard that in past years, the Zulu Club invited some actual African Zulu persons to participate in the parade, so presumably they approved. On the other hand, as I noted in my column, some African Zulu students in the US protested the parade back in the 60’s. Like anything else, I’d presume there’s a variety of opinions on the matter. I don’t think anyone has actually taken a poll on the subject.

  3. You know what would also be cool? The “Irish zulu” coming up with their own theme and not imitating anything in general… also, you seem to be misguided on the background of Zulu. I think you may need to look into its origins more. Just saying.

    • Sugoli-Senpai,

      #1 – There’s nothing wrong with coming up with a wry imitation or satire of some existing concept. You may think it’s lame or overly derivative, but it isn’t offensive.

      #2- I am well-versed in the background of Zulu, and you haven’t pointed out any factual errors in my column. I can’t help but think that if I said anything inaccurate, you would have mentioned it specifically.

      • That’s where you’re wrong. I’m a vague person. I don’t provide details right away. It’s a personal flaw of mine when I don’t truly expect a conversation to go anywhere. I didn’t expect you to respond, but since you did, I’ll take the time to say this much:

        1) I didn’t say anything about being offended. I do think it’s lame and somewhat ignorant, though.

        2) Go learn of the rich history of Zulu, why they adopted that name, and what their humble organization was/is for.

        3) It was not to poke fun at pompous whites, or whatever it is that you’ve stated in this article. That is a misguided fallacy you’ve written.

        You do not seem that well versed in the history of Zulu like you claim you are, but it’s okay. This is a learning environment. Anyway, it’s just a name change that Zulu asked for with regards to the issue. Them changing their name will not hurt them. They were inspired by actual Zulu to create this pretty lame spin off. They can find another. That won’t hurt them. Very simple and everyone’s happy. It’s not as if Zulu called for the entire krewe to disband and never participate again. And they accepted and apologized. Issue solved yes? They can get a name that better suits them now. It’s just.. Not that serious in my opinion.The situation was handled and both parties involved are fine with it.

        • Sugoii-Senpai,

          I’m glad you admit that drive-by vague commenting is a personal flaw of yours. But your argument has other problems:

          >>I do think [Irish Zulu] lame and somewhat ignorant, though.<> Go learn of the rich history of Zulu, why they adopted that name, and what their humble organization was/is for.<>It was not to poke fun at pompous whites, or whatever it is that you’ve stated in this article. That is a misguided fallacy you’ve written.<>[I]t’s just a name change that Zulu asked for with regards to the issue. Them changing their name will not hurt them. They were inspired by actual Zulu to create this pretty lame spin off. They can find another. That won’t hurt them.<<

          It won't hurt them much, but it will hurt them. They have to abandon their existing concept and find something else after having been threatened by Zulu with baseless trademark litigation. And at least some members of the group were not on board with this (I saw a couple of posts on Facebook to this effect). It strikes me as the type of incident that we need to avoid repeating.

          • I actually don’t have poor comprehension skills. I know what you said. I’m simply telling you that I think you’re wrong. Also.. Of course my arguments have some holes lol. I’m well aware that I didn’t bother to provide sources to anything, nor have I really said much in detail about this for the mere fact that I had no actual intention of carrying this discussion out like this from the beginning. The fact that I had no actual intentions to debate about this makes it challenging for me to be as engaged as I could be about this topic. And, by the way, my opinion on the irish zulu krewe shouldn’t have been taken as an actual part of my argument (If I can even call it that, considering that I didn’t put much effort into trying to persuade you to think otherwise. At best, I hoped that if you were genuinely curious about why I had said those things, you would just go look into it on your own time). It was a very subjective statement. It’s a given that not everyone will share that opinion with me. That’s perfectly fine. Also, I was not being condescending, nor was I trying to be rude to you. Those weren’t my intentions, at least.

            Anyway, let’s just agree to disagree instead of wasting more time on a discussion that won’t truly go anywhere.

  4. This group was not in the Irish Channel St. Patrick’s Day Parade.

  5. Eventually I expect we will pass a consititutional amendment for the right to be offended.

  6. Were there really any Irish in Irish Zulu? Although I am not Irish, I ask this question because the Irish I grew up with would never have kowtowed under these circumstances.

    • Absolutely! My grandparents would have just stood taller on that challenge! … fightin’ Irish..

  7. The jalapenos are too hot, the daquiris are too cold. Thanks, Owen, for reminding me about what I need to be displeased with this week.

  8. For crying out loud, are there not more important matters like I don’t know perhaps crime, and ungodly property tax……some people just need to get a life and get over themselves…..thanks Owen for all your research and input, Mondays would not be the same without you!

  9. To understand this it needs to be viewed through the lens of the systemic displacement of native New Orleanians and the cultural appropriation that is dominating the ‘new’ New Orleans.

    • Jacques,

      Who is to say that the “Irish Zulu” were not native (or at least hadn’t been living in New Orleans for many years)? Regardless, why should it matter? New Orleans has not been well served by a haughty, insular attitude.

      Also, “cultural appropriation” is a ridiculous concept. It is right and proper that people of different cultures adopt various things from one another.

    • Thank goodness for the cultural appropriation. The old money elites and their ‘Culture” are why Atlanta and Houston have all the business. And that culture involves a) putting the faux momus/comus society in the boardrooms and civic organizations, b)keeping competition out of the city by many methods, including c)the financing of these suffocating neighborhood committees that protest development (they are shills for the moneyed elites)

  10. I’m not on Facebook, so I have to ask. These hundreds of people who expressed outrage on Facebook: where are they from? Because it’s easy to see how people unfamiliar with Mardi Gras in New Orleans would get upset.

    • Tim,

      I saw many people complaining who were either from New Orleans or have lived her for a while — especially on the Zulu Facebook page.

  11. Guess we all need to master the art of walking on egg shells.

  12. Agree – Mardi Gras is not to be taken seriously. And when it is, it becomes insidious. Read 2 sentences of someone like Laborde, Schindler, et al., who seem to think it’s real-life, to understand that.

  13. Thanks Owen for having the guts to call it like it is… whatever happened to celebrating freedom of expression and just good crazy fun during Mardi Gras for goodness sakes! If not Mardi Gras then when?… we are becoming a world of tender , easily offended and spineless creatures.

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