Mardi Gras Day this year falls in the middle of Black History Month. You can see some of that history in motion this morning when the Krewe of Zulu rolls through the streets of the Crescent City.
New Orleans is the city that taught America how to party, and every year during Carnival season, it gives a refresher course. For the last three weeks, it’s been parades large and small, day and night, fancy-dress balls known as cotillions, floats and flambeaux.
It all comes to a raucous, joyous head today, Fat Tuesday — or in French, Mardi Gras.
By now, the Skeletons, or Skull and Bones gangs, have already awakened the sleepy residents of predominantly black neighborhoods, dressed head to toe in black-and-white skeleton costumes and banging pots, pans and tambourines as they shout, “WAKE UP! YOU NEXT!”
But the official kickoff of Mardi Gras Day comes at 8 a.m. Central time, when the Krewe of Zulu rolls their parade through the streets of New Orleans, members dressed in their traditional black face, Afro wigs and grass skirts, handing down their now-famous Zulu coconuts.
(NOTE: In New Orleans, all Mardi Gras parades roll. To say anything else instantly marks you as a tourist.)
And that’s the moment when Carnival and Black History Month converge.
The krewes are the private social organizations that put on the big parades, with marching bands and gaudily decorated floats towed by tractors, each manned by costumed members throwing all manner of trinkets — some of which require parental guidance — to hundreds of thousands of spectators.
Zulu was the first black krewe officially recognized by the city. These days, the Krewe of Zulu holds equal standing with Rex, one of the oldest original all-white Mardi Gras krewes, which originated many of the Mardi Gras traditions that still exist today.
The kings of Zulu and Rex formally open the festivities together the day before on Lundi Gras, Fat Monday, when the mayor officially turns over the city streets to them.
But it hasn’t all been smiles and good times for Zulu. When the organization began back in the early 1900s, fun wasn’t really the point.
Zulu began as what’s known in New Orleans as a “social aid and pleasure club,” which collected due from its members. Together with black churches, these clubs formed a financial and social safety net for black New Orleans, a role both still play today.
The club dues collected served as a kind of life insurance, a pool of funds that members could tap into when times were hard — a frequent occurrence for black working men in the NOLA. And when you died, your dues paid for your funeral, which club members would put on for you.
Zulu was not the only such club in New Orleans, but were easily the best-known, and still are.
New Orleans Online offers a detailed history of Zulu here.
The early 1900s also was a time when black New Orleanians weren’t allowed to take part in the “mainstream” Mardi Gras activities. Joining the established krewes was “by invitation only” — and if you weren’t white, you weren’t invited.
You didn’t even show your black face on the main parade routes of St. Charles Avenue and Canal Street except at your own — considerable — risk.
The response of black neighborhoods was to hold their own Carnival parades and create their own Mardi Gras traditions, one of which became the Zulus, who set out to mock every aspect of “traditional” Mardi Gras.
Their parades were sponsored by neighborhood bars, a marriage of convenience for both the parade goers and the local “watering holes,” which could count on overflow crowds on parade days.
Not until 1968 did the Zulu parade roll on St. Charles and Canal. It’s been a mainstream parade ever since.
Zulu has had its share of controversy, especially back in the 1960s, when a lot of black folks in town felt that its black face and grass skirt get-ups were demeaning to an increasingly self-aware Black America. At one point, their membership shrank to a mere 16 men.
One of them was my father, who was as proud of being a Zulu as he was having been a Navy Seabee in the Pacific during World War 2.
Stubbornness is a major character trait — some would say character flaw — in New Orleans. It was that stubbornness that led those last 16 to hold out and hang on in the face of all the scorn heaped upon them.
In the years that followed, Zulu not only survived, but grew and ultimately flourished. The annual Zulu Ball became of the city’s major Carnival events, and one of its most highly prized invitations.
Today, Zulu finds itself at eye level with every other major krewe in New Orleans, known as much for its charity work, feeding poor families during holiday seasons, and for sponsoring local schools and college scholarships as for its noisy, gaudy parades. Their continued existence is a testament to the creative, defiant, joyously stubborn spirit of black New Orleans.
And they’re rolling right now. If you want to see them live, and you have the time, go to the WDSU webcam…right this second.
THE ZULU COCONUT
After Zulu started rolling on the mainstream parade routes in 1968, it didn’t take long for the Zulu coconut to eclipse the doubloon as the most cherished of all Mardi Gras “throws.”
These are real coconuts, each one individually gilded and decorated by hand by Zulu members, who make up the designs themselves.
But there was a problem.
Tossing out plastic beads and fake gold doubloons was no big deal, but throwing Zulu coconuts could be life-threatening. More than a few parade goers who lacked the receiving skills of, say, a Jerry Rice ended up getting brained by these things. Zulu became the target of so many lawsuits that insurance companies wouldn’t go near them.
Finally, the Louisiana legislature stepped in, passing a law that exempted Zulu from liability — provided they handed out their coconuts to the crowds. No more throwing.
Every so often, some overly exuberant Zulu member forgets himself and flings one, but for the most part, they stick to the rule. Which means spectators can go home with their beloved coconuts — without a detour to the emergency room.
It also meant that fewer parade goers would even get a shot at going home with a Zulu coconut, making them even more prized than they already were.