More Than Beads, Booze and Boobs

Forget Girls Gone Wild. This Mardi Gras, a New Orleans native celebrates the 100th anniversary of the black Zulu Krewe.

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Read the washingtonpost.com Live Online discussion on MARDI GRAS NOIR with The Root's Chandra Thomas.

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There is admittedly a Girls Gone Wild element to Mardi Gras. You know, the intoxicated young women raising their shirts for beads and engaging in salacious sexual activity on the streets. That may be so for many tourists, but for natives like my family, Mardi Gras is a family-bonding time: cooking out and dancing to the bands marching by, all the while screaming for the beads and other trinkets thrown from the vibrantly decorated floats. I have never once seen anyone in my family flash their assets, to claim worthless, plastic jewelry.

This Mardi Gras, as my hometown continues to recover from the devastation of Katrina, we have another reason to rejoice. This year marks the 100th anniversary of the Zulu krewe parading through the streets of New Orleans. Zulu is the “social aid and pleasure club” that hosts the first and largest African-American-centered parade in New Orleans. When black people were kept out of the main Mardi Gras celebration, the Zulus decided to form a black “krewe,” (a formal name for a Mardi Gras club) of their own. This year, the Louisiana State Museum joined forces with Zulu to present From Tramps to Kings: 100 Years of Zulu, a new yearlong exhibit that explores the origins, unique traditions, and cultural and civic contributions of the organization from 1909 to the present.

Some of my best memories are of Mardi Gras mornings, when my family members, young and old, would gather at the crack of dawn to stake out a good spot along the Zulu parade route. Along with the typical parade baubles, the decorated coconut remains the coveted catch of the day at the Zulu parade. It has become such a desirable souvenir that it was officially copyrighted in 2001. 

Long before an invite to President Obama’s inaugural ball was the hot ticket, black New Orleanians coveted invitations to the formal Zulu ball, which takes place the Friday night before the Fat Tuesday festivities get underway. At one time, it was the only carnival ball that blacks could attend. It is an awesome sight seeing more than 15,000 black folks in elegant floor-length gowns and pristine tuxes.

The ball typically runs into the wee hours and includes a live concert with some of the music industry’s hottest stars, but the highlight of the night is when the brass band emerges and the crowd—with umbrellas and handkerchiefs in hand—erupts into the traditional second line dance.

Now that’s an authentic New Orleans moment.

Today, the Zulus are no longer relegated exclusively to the “back streets” of predominantly black neighborhoods. Zulu follows the Rex parade, which crowns the official king of Mardi Gras, down St. Charles Avenue and culminates with a traditional toast in front of the old city hall, now known as Gallier Hall.

And, of course, no reflections on black Mardi Gras would be complete without the “Indians,” a group of African Americans who parade around mostly black neighborhoods in elaborate handmade regalia modeled after Native-American ceremonial dress. They always seem to take great pride in their African roots as they, with their belled wrist and ankle bands, launch into their Afro-Caribbean inspired jams with congas and tambourines. Legend has it that this tradition was created when black slaves banned from joining in Mardi Gras revelries in the Gulf Region "masked" themselves as Native Americans to participate. We will get our party on by any means necessary, right?

Just as the image of America is undergoing a transformation of sorts with the ushering in of a new presidential administration, it is my dream that the image of Mardi Gras, too, will undergo a major makeover. I want the world to know that African Americans have had a major hand in shaping Mardi Gras traditions in New Orleans, and that it is about more than beads, booze and breasts. Please check out my photo album of past celebrations of my family and the Zulu krewe. It is up to us to ensure that our story no longer gets lost in the madness of it all. Come down and check it out for yourself. And bring your kids, too, because believe it or not Mardi Gras truly is a family affair!

Chandra R. Thomas is an award-winning Atlanta-based journalist. She is the co-founder of an African-American discussion group, TalkBLACK.

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