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 UptownMessenger.com on Mondays. He has previously written for the Reason Public Policy Foundation.