Black Mardi Gras: Zulu and the Mardi Gras Indians

New Orleans' annual Carnival festival known popularly as Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday), emerged in many ways from the post-Civil War period as a ritualized performance of the city's local hierarchies of power and place. Organized historically around secretive "krewes" of wealthy white men who, in addition to coordinating lavish private balls of the city's social elite, parade masked on elevated floats through more affluent thoroughfares, Mardi Gras evolved as a spectacular projection of New Orleans' social lines of racial, class, and gendered privilege. Founded in 1916 as the first African American Carnival krewe, the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club represented one of the earliest challenges to Mardi Gras' racial exclusivity. Yet in a complex play on dominant racial typecast, Zulu members traditionally parade in a minstrel-like blackface attire. New Orleans' Mardi Gras Indian tradition stands as a more explicit historical rejection of Carnival's social ordering. Rooted in groups of working-class African American men, Indian "gangs" or "tribes" emerge on Mardi Gras day in elaborate beaded, sequined, and feathered suites crafted over a year or more as embodied homage to histories of collaborative resistance and freedom shared between blacks and Native Americans dating back to enslavement. Apart from the institutionalized and highly regulated parading of mainstream of Mardi Gras, Indian gangs run in the marginal "back-a-town" streets of black working-class New Orleans involving symbolic battles through artistic virtuosity, verbal play, music, and dance. Similar to the gendered lines of the original Carnival krewes, both Zulu and Mardi Gras Indians remain largely male-centered communities.