After hearing some of the controversy about the Mari Gras Indian’s use of Native American garb I thought it would interesting to look at a Mardi Gras group the used Native African garb instead.
Every year on Mardi Gras a group of men (and a separate group of women) parade down the streets of New Orleans wearing grass skirts and black face paint and throwing coconuts. This Mardi Gras krewe is called the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club.
The club first marched in 1909. It is said to have started by a group called the Tramps. The Tramps were a group of laborers who also belonged to a Benevolent Aid Society. Benevolent Aid Societies were an early form of insurance for laborers. Members paid small dues and they were given compensation if the worker of the household fell sick or died. The group began their Zulu practice after viewing a play about the Zulu called “There Never was and Never Will be a King like Me.” The group continues to act as an Aid Society.
Early on in their tradition the group began throwing painted coconuts as a replacement for the expensive glass beads that many other krewes threw. The group soon began to have lawsuits filed against them because of damage from these coconuts. In 1987 they were unable to sign any kind of insurance because of the practice. Luckily, in 1988 Louisiana signed into law a bill that limited the liability on coconut-sustained injuries under pressure from the Zulu.
Aside from coconut controversy, the group also experienced dissent from civil rights groups in the 1960s. In the 1960’s membership dropped as low as 16 members(1965) and this statement was issued in the Lousiinana Weekly:
“We, the Negroes of New Orleans, are in the midst of a fight for our rights and for a recognition of our human dignity which underlies those rights. Therefore, we 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 does not represent Us. Rather, it represents a warped picture against us. Therefore, we petition all citizens of New Orleans to boycott the Zulu Parade. If we want respect from others, we must first demand it from ourselves.”
The group was encouraged to stop their traditional usage of black face paint and grass skirts. As with the coconut issue the Zulu were able to slide by this controversy without infringing on their traditional practice. By the end of the 1960’s heat had left the group as local civil rights leaders Ernest J. Wright and Morris F.X. Jeff, Sr joined the club.