Why was Zulu a no-show at a forum to discuss blackface?

Members of the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club second line towards the Algiers Courthouse for the raising of the Zulu flag. (Photo by Brett Duke, NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune) NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune

NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune

Members of the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club second line towards the Algiers Courthouse for the raising of the Zulu flag. (Photo by Brett Duke, NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune) NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune

There was no expectation that Zulu Social Aid & Pleasure Club members would show up to a forum to discuss blackface and agree with activists on their contention that their masking tradition is bygone, even a symbol of white supremacy. The group Take Em Down NOLA, which led the call to remove Confederate monuments in New Orleans, has pushed for the organization to move on from the facial paint the group finds reminiscent of denigrating minstrel shows.

The “black makeup" Zulu members use ”was never intended to insult or degrade African-Americans," the club had said in a statement three weeks before they applied the black and white colors to their face for their Mardi Gras parade. Club members seemed intent on leaving it at that.

What organizers with the NOLA Black Owned Media Collaborative had expected, however, was that Zulu members would show up to a forum they hosted Monday night (March 11) at Carver Theater and listen to the community. Organizers saw the forum as an opportunity for the public to weigh in, and Take Em Down NOLA to explain its position.

The problem was, Zulu never showed up.

After confirming to organizers he would represent Zulu, club President Elroy James was a no-show, saying in an interview that he ultimately decided that he “did not think the forum would serve a useful purpose.” Zulu’s statement, James added, was “out there and we aren’t changing it." James also said he had a schedule conflict.

WBOK general manager Susan Henry, one of the forum organizers, said she had “numerous conversations” with James and secured his commitment. The event would not have taken place without his participation, she said in a statement.

That didn’t mean the forum didn’t feature someone defending Zulu. David Belfield, a former King Zulu and club president, took the stage with a folder packed with Zulu materials. He spent 90 minutes explaining the club’s traditions and members’ reticence about changing its ways, and he insisted Zulu never intended to mock black people.

Belfield made it clear that he was in no position to speak for Zulu; the club’s constitution only allows its president or the archivist to speak on its behalf. But Belfield’s status with the club also wasn’t clear. In 2013, according to Belfield, he was expelled from the club after being accused of theft, a charge he denies and says was really about a rivalry with then-Zulu President Naaman Stewart.

Those facts didn’t emerge until the next day. It was a bizarre turn of events after a mostly civil forum that some seemed to think had yielded some understanding, even if it didn’t move Zulu or Take Em Down NOLA closer to a resolution.

However, forum organizers were challenged to explain why Belfield took part in the discussion.

“He was courageous and shared his opinion passionately," said forum moderator Jeffrey Thomas, who publishes the website Think504.com. “I had no knowledge that he was expelled," adding that Belfield made it clear “he was not speaking officially for Zulu.”

Belfield said in an interview that he was not prepared to take part in the panel discussion when he arrived at the theater. He said he was approached by WBOK’s Henry after it became clear Zulu might be a no-show. Belfield said he informed Thomas he was no longer a member of Zulu before agreeing to take part.

Told that Thomas had no memory of discussing his membership status, Belfield said, “There had to be a misunderstanding.”

Belfield, who was a Zulu member for 40 years, said he never intended for the audience to think he was a stand-in for the organization. But he added that, had he been president, he would have attended the forum.

“I would’ve tried to fill up the auditorium with Zulu members,” Belfield said. “We’re part of the community, we get our sustenance from the community. We don’t run from the issue.”

During the discussion, Take Em Down NOLA members provided Belfield with ideas for updating Zulu’s makeup. Angela Kinlaw gave Belfield images artists had created of what the new design could look like, noting that Zulu members paraded without makeup briefly in the 1960s after the NAACP raised concerns.

“It’s not about the paint. It’s about the configuration of the paint on the face,” Kinlaw said. “This blackface theme you did let go in ’65, ’66. We’re simply asking you to do it again.”

Belfield rejected the notion that Zulu’s makeup is inappropriate. He also stressed the amount of money Zulu donates to various causes around the city, saying that critics don’t give the group enough credit.

“To us we don’t see an issue,” Belfield said. “It seemed like what you were looking for was a confrontation rather than a conversation.”

Belfield accused Take Em Down NOLA of trying to force Zulu to do something it doesn’t want to do. TEDN’s Malcolm Suber pushed back on that, saying the group “is not trying to force anyone to do anything except come to their senses.”

“We know as social revolutionaries that the only thing constant is change," Suber said. “Zulu has the possibility of change. Quit beating people over the head with tradition, tradition, tradition.”

Panelist John Slade, a host on radio station WBOK, said he thought Zulu should explore alternatives, such as making its floats more satirical about issues affecting the black community. While he acknowledged Zulu’s makeup goes back to a time when the club was making fun of more formal krewes that excluded black people, Slade said he thinks the joke may be lost on modern audiences.

“I don’t see any mocking now. I don’t see a Black Lives Matter float,” Slade said, or a float mocking gentrification. "Maybe make it controversial.”

While he stressed that he did not speak for Zulu, Belfield said he thought it was possible current leaders might be at least open to discussing alternative face paint designs.

“I think the suggestion of an alternative design on the facial makeup, it might work,” he said.

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Kevin Litten covers New Orleans City Hall for NOLA.com | The Times Picayune. Reach him at klitten@nola.com or 504-826-3524. Follow him on Twitter @kevinlitten.