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Zulu schools Landrieu on cultural symbolism

Former Democrat New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu and those who think like him about cultural symbolism could take a lesson from his former fellow members of the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club.

As Democrat activists ponder who to put up against Republican Pres. Donald Trump next year, some stump for Landrieu. For example, one recent booster from outside the party argued that Landrieu’s dismantling of historic monuments in New Orleans while mayor, all connected to the Confederacy, commends him for the nation’s top job.

Only in a world where his party increasingly tears itself away from reality and the real concerns of Americans would Landrieu’s actions in that regard be considered anything but an exercise in intolerance and an avenue to promote social engineering. Unwilling to conceive of the monuments in any terms but his own, he decided to follow the Islamic State model of scarring the city’s landscape and erasing its history.

The Zulu crew from New Orleans doesn’t feel that way. With Democrats having declared wearing blackface at any time in their lives tantamount to rendering an elected official unfit to serve – even as those Democrats caught doing so suddenly develop feet of clay and don’t tender their resignations – Zulu won’t back down on its century-plus tradition of doing so.

Amid calls to stop the practice of wearing that during parading, Zulu members – mostly black although with some whites joining in the past quarter-century – issued an elegant statement concerning the issue. “Zulu parade costumes bear no resemblance to the costumes worn by ‘blackface’ minstrel performers at the turn of the century. Zulu parade costumes more closely resemble and are designed to honor garments worn by South African Zulu warriors.”

Additionally, the statement also endorses the view that the krewe’s century-old tradition of members darkening their skin hails from black poverty in the post-Reconstruction South, when “makeup (and not masks)” was “the only option available to Zulu members at that time.” And, “nothing about the organization, including the black makeup, was intended to insult or degrade African-Americans. To the contrary, Zulu has always been about celebrating African and African-American culture, strength and pride.”

In other words, Zulu members of more than a century ago – then an all-black krewe – made their own cultural appropriation of blackface. Maybe back then (don’t forget that the first movie with sound dialogue, The Jazz Singer, had its main character perform in blackface) to many, and particularly among whites, performance in that guise connoted parody of blacks conceived as inferiors, but Zulu made the decision to reject that and turn it around into a source of pride.

In essence, they took control of the symbol, demonstrating the power they had over it to make it serve their purposes. This runs entirely counter to Landrieu’s lame argument that the people of and those visiting New Orleans necessarily must perceive negative connotations from the monuments’ symbolism – as opposed to appreciating them for their architecture, integration into the fabric of the city, and places in history – as if human beings remained powerless to alter that supposedly intrinsic meaning.

Weak argumentation, but also disingenuous. Landrieu and his ilk wanted to prevent any but their imputed interpretation to exist because they could use it as command and control. By setting themselves up as the archons on the issue, they could use it as a cudgel to remake into their preferred image in the miniature New Orleans society, but, more ambitiously, eventually American society.

We are not, unlike what Landrieu asserted through his actions regarding the monuments, prisoners of others’ prejudices. Nor are we hostages to how others want to define the world, a tactic which ultimately allows them command and control over our lives. Zulu understands this, something that liberal cultural elites like Landrieu are unable or unwilling to grasp.

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