Opinion
 

Behind the Zulu blackface flap: liberal guilt, clueless outsiders

Mardi Gras revelers embrace the political subversiveness that has long been at the heart of carnival.

C.W. Cannon

Mardi Gras revelers embrace the political subversiveness that has long been at the heart of carnival.

I remember with pride the carnival season of 2003. In that year I was honored as royalty in the Krewe du Jieux, at that time a sub-krewe of Krewe du Vieux. I was dubbed the “King of the Jieuxs” and rode alongside my wife, the “Jieuxish American Princess” for that year. But I have a confession to make, and I would post it on my widely followed twitter feed if I had one: I am not now and never have been a Jew. I was a Jieux for many years, but never a Jew (my wife is both).

The Krewe du Jieux was the brainchild of photographer and parade impresario L.J. Goldstein. It has since been replaced in the Krewe du Vieux line-up by the very similar Krewe de Mishigas (long story, studded along the way with plentiful opportunities for Jieuxish jokes). Goldstein’s idea was to attack anti-Semitism in a distinctively New Orleanian idiom: the idiom of carnival, whose hallmarks are social inversion and satire.

For years, our krewe’s coveted throw was the painted, glittered bagel. Sound familiar? It should, because the Zulu coconut was the inspiration for this throw (and for the Muses high-heeled shoe a few years later). Indeed, the Krewe of Zulu was the inspiration for many aspects of the Krewe du Jieux’s masking practice, including the “Big Macher,” our version of Zulu’s famous “Big Shot.”

It’s hard to measure the scope of Zulu’s influence on what the Times-Picayune’s Doug MacCash has called the “new” Mardi Gras, and on what I have called the restoration of carnivalesque carnival, after the dark ages of the white supremacist anti-carnival ushered in by the Mystick Krewe of Comus in 1857. It’s a remarkable testament to the resilience of carnival spirit that, in the midst of the white supremacist era, when Comus, Momus, Proteus, and Rex ruled the day, the Zulu king first stepped off a banana boat in the New Basin canal wearing a lard can crown. The date: 1909.

That’s why it’s so upsetting — also a bit absurd — when people who have no understanding or appreciation for carnival aesthetics and social analysis chime in from hundreds of miles away with self-righteous finger-wagging. What they’re about is shaming traditions that are far more revolutionary than they are able to comprehend.

That’s exactly what has happened this year, when Tales of the Cocktail founder Ann Tuennerman went up on Facebook with a picture of herself in Mardi Gras regalia and since then, after taking flack for it, has been agonizing through a multi-part act of public contrition. Tuennerman’s sin is to have had the temerity to accept the great honor of riding in the Zulu parade on Mardi Gras morning, wearing the traditional mask of Zulu blackface.

Ann Tuennerman removed the Facebook shot of herself in Zulu blackface after the posting stirred up a fuss.

Ann Tuennerman removed the Facebook shot of herself in Zulu blackface after the posting stirred up a fuss.

I say “Zulu blackface” because the style of blackface worn by Zulu riders is distinct from other forms of blackface viewed as offensive due to their history as a tool of white supremacist ideology. One of the distinctive visual features of Zulu blackface is an enlarged white eye on one side of the face, which can be seen in depictions of the Zulu Big Shot as well as on Tuennerman’s face in her much-maligned social media posting. In the world of totalitarian expression — the opposite of carnivalesque expression — such nuances of signification go unnoticed.

A typically clueless (and arrogant) response to Ann Tuennerman’s posting came from Chicago’s Nikkole Palmatier: “I have a problem with the blackface entirely. As do most people outside of the New Orleans tradition. Just as those who live outside of Cleveland think the Indians logo is racist and the term ‘Redskins’ is racist.”

Yeah. Just let that sink in for a minute. It’s hard to conceive of a more egregiously false analogy than this. Are the Cleveland Indians and Washington Redskins actually Native American institutions, founded, owned, and staffed, at all levels, by Native Americans?

Palmatier’s argument leads us to question whether Zulu’s iconography should be practiced by anyone, not just whether Zulu should accept white riders. And that’s a whole other can of worms. It calls into question the extent to which black people should be allowed agency in representing their own experience; it also places limits on how black people themselves choose to enunciate anti-racist arguments.

In the best traditions of carnivalesque practice, Zulu has expropriated racist representations and inverted them as a form of anti-racist resistance. Those who say people shouldn’t try to do that kind of thing just don’t get what carnival is. Maybe because it’s not part of their culture. But it is a part of ours. More knowing observers focused on the fact that Ann Tuennerman is white, and that her wearing of Zulu blackface has a different meaning than a black rider’s exact same mask. The problem with this critique is that it suggests that Zulu should not allow white riders.

To Zulu’s credit, the krewe has welcomed white members since before the 1992 City Council ordinance required parading krewes to include members of different races. (Though the ordinance was later struck down by the courts, it had the salutary effect of removing from our streets the premier white supremacist carnival club, the Mystick Krewe of Comus.

The suggestion that Zulu should insist on an all-black membership also strikes at the heart of the radical, anti-totalitarian spirit of carnivalesque expression, which thrives on crossing boundaries and cross-dressing of all kinds. What about the Mardi Gras Indians? Are they racist for parading in stereotypical — though richly embellished — Native-American garb? I’ve never heard anyone suggest such a thing.

Yes, I know that the historical reality of white privilege puts white people masking as non-white in a fundamentally different category. Unless, of course, that white person is parading as an honored member of a black organization.

There was at one time an informal Mardi Gras practice whereby white people masked in blackface, often as mammy stereotypes. That was clearly the expression of a racist worldview. The question about any cultural message is which ideology it serves. But that requires context, something that totalitarian expression eschews.

Does the message in question affirm a racist ideology or resist it? Was Ann Tuennerman’s blackface on Mardi Gras day in the age of Trump part of the nationwide resurgence of white supremacist ideology that Trump has enabled? No one could think such a thing, and no one is claiming it. Instead, critics are saying, “Of course she didn’t intend to send a racist message, but …”

But what? Some critics have said it was OK for her to wear the prescribed costume, as white riders in Zulu have been doing for decades (at least) but that she shouldn’t have shared it to social media because, well, people not from New Orleans wouldn’t understand. Sure, but why is that our problem? Why are people who so jealously defend black authenticity from non-black interlopers so quick to intrude on a New Orleans culture that they have no knowledge of or respect for?

Still other commenters, not willing to deprive a century-old African-American cultural practice of its right to exist, took aim at the caption Paul Tuennerman appended to the “offensive” photo of his wife celebrating Mardi Gras. He quipped, “Throw a little Black Face on and you lose all your Media Skills.” One commenter wrote that Tuennerman’s statement “suggests that by performing blackness Ann loses her ability to intelligently and effectively engage media” But this analysis totally ignores the possibility of satirical intent. It interprets a carnivalesque message as if it were a message on any other Tuesday in regular old boring America.

To me, Paul Tuennerman’s comment is a critique of media, not a critique of blackness. It suggests his awareness that certain forms of expression are so explosive that they can’t be digested at all by national media, with its inability to process the ironies and inversions of carnival expression. It shows his well-founded fear that the frightened and dishonest world of America’s “conversation about race” is likely to cry “racism” whenever it sees an image that might be racist in some other, very different context.

On a broader note, I question how productive it is to second-guess those white people who, in good faith, attempt to publicly embrace black culture and to celebrate with pride their acceptance in black circles. Why is this issue so uncomfortable? All the hand-wringing is driven by unproductive white liberal guilt (and envy) on the one hand, and, on the other, by African-American guarding of black cultural capital — which is very understandable given the extent to which black people have been deprived of other forms of capital.

These are reasons why there’s always a splashy public argument over which white people deserve their modicum of black approval and which ones don’t. If Zulu has consented to ride with Ann Tuennerman, my assumption is that they are sufficiently able to judge her worthiness for that honor.

It’s not like it’s hard to find racism in the history and present practice of Mardi Gras. Just tune in to WYES on Mardi Gras night and watch the “public TV” station’s obsequious fawning over the king of white supremacy, a.k.a. Comus, in his very white mask, at “The Meeting of the Courts.” Get mad about the captains in Ku Klux Klan outfits in all the old-line parades on St. Charles Avenue. Never accept a throw from Proteus. Think twice about watching the Knights of Chaos parade, or Krewe d’Etat and, if you do, bear in mind how closely their satire echoes the spirit of old-line krewes that, in their glory days, led the fight to drown Reconstruction in a shower of blood. But if you’re looking for racism among the white riders of Zulu, you obviously have no clue what’s racist and what’s not in the universe of carnival.

I saw a great sign in the Société de Ste. Anne procession on Mardi Gras day this year. It said, “This Parade Fights Fascism.” Yes, and it does so by inverting and puncturing the prevailing ideological categories of domination. That’s exactly what Zulu is doing by putting black riders and their white allies together in an inverted version of a tool designed for racial oppression.

I realize that the vast majority of Americans have no idea what carnival is, or how to read carnival messages, and that’s OK. But maybe well-meaning liberal observers should take a page from their own playbook and not comment on cultures that they have no exposure to or appreciation for.

C.W.Cannon’s latest novel is French Quarter Beautification Project. He teaches writing and New Orleans Studies at Loyola University.

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