This essay was originally published by The Lens on March 1, 2019.
Organizers of Take ‘Em Down NOLA, the group that credits itself with removal of the Confederate monuments, have more in common with white supremacists than they care to admit.
Last week, less than a dozen of them gathered on the neutral ground outside of the Zulu Social Aid & Pleasure Club headquarters to protest members’ use of black face paint as part of Zulu parading pageantry, arguing that the tradition stems from minstrelsy.
The most recent national dialogue about blackface began with revelations of white policymakers’ blackface-wearing pasts. In a maneuver reminiscent of white discourse about black-on-black crime, Take ‘Em Down NOLA attempted to shift the spotlight away from the racism of people who make public policy that has material impacts on millions of Black people and instead challenge the cultural traditions of Black New Orleanians.
Like many contemporary social-justice activists, they seem to share the white supremacist belief that working-class, Southern Black people need to be changed; that we need to submit to their higher wisdom and agenda.
Take ‘Em Down NOLA reinforces the narrative that the Black masses are stupid and need education — in fact, so stupid that we annually celebrate our own ridicule. Having sought and secured press coverage, Take ‘Em Down NOLA is not protesting a minstrel show; they’re starring in a self-produced minstrel show, and it throws into question the sincerity of the group’s effort to rid the 110-year-old Black club and cultural tradition of the symbols it has long deployed.
Though NOLA.com columnist Jarvis Deberry reduces all criticism of Take ‘Em Down NOLA to haterism by blackface supporters who are doing nothing for justice, I am neither defending blackface nor am I arguing for a reprioritization of social issues. I want Black people from New Orleans, particularly those who don’t have a community-organizing and/or public-relations background, to understand the incoherence between what Take ‘Em Down NOLA is saying and doing and how they fit into a larger social-justice context.
Community organizing is not a purely whimsical art form. There are agreed-upon rules. The purpose of organizing is to build a base of power to shape change. Veteran organizers train nubies to analyze power dynamics in order to identify the best tactics to meet their goal. In a power analysis of Zulu, the following questions become pertinent:
Who is in a position to make the decision about club tradition that Take ‘Em Down NOLA feels should be made? Answer: Zulu Club leadership.
Who or what gives Zulu leadership their decision-making power? Answer: Zulu’s dues-paying members and the general Black public that lends social capital to the club’s traditions.
How might Take ‘Em Down NOLA have convinced Zulu’s power base to align with their goal and organize their power to pressure the decision-makers?
Take ‘Em Down NOLA could have tried to converse with members who stand around outside Zulu headquarters in the evenings. They could have asked someone they know for a connection to an active member who might be sympathetic. Hell, they could’ve waited a week and a half and thrown paper planes with their agenda onto Zulu floats. Instead, they chose to stand outside Zulu headquarters with bullhorns, playing to media that they had cued by sending out press releases in advance.
The PR campaign tactics were guaranteed to offend Zulu members and leaders alike. They make it far less likely that Take ‘Em Down will ever succeed in engaging with the club it seeks to influence.
In an Advocate article, Take ‘Em Down NOLA lead organizer Malcolm Suber states that if Zulu doesn’t stop using black paint, Take ‘Em Down NOLA will pressure the City Council to stop giving them permits to parade. Given how obviously the protest tactic undermines Take ‘Em Down NOLA’s ability to build a base of power among Zulu members, I have to wonder: is a City Council-sponsored Zulu ban the actual goal?
See, when they levy a threat to have Zulu canceled for non-compliance, this isn’t just about aesthetics.
That we still choose to gather in the streets en masse — not to spite whitey, but because we just want to be around each other — cannot be explained with logic. It’s a testament to the strength of community and our culture, something older and deeper than our “resilience.”
White supremacists have employed various tactics to deprive us of the nourishment we have always found in community. Code Noir curfews and, not coincidentally, the refusal to grant permits to social aid and pleasure clubs for second lines comes to mind. And yet, we persist in honoring that which has granted us survival — our relationships with each other.
Black New Orleanians have long decided that resistance to white people’s ideas about who we are does not have to be at the center of our cultural traditions. Our culture is not a propaganda campaign to convince others of our worth. Our culture is a living force. It grows, it responds, it transforms. It takes new shape but never dies.
Deberry, and most recently NOLA.comguest columnist Chuck Perkins, insist that a refusal to agree with Take ‘Em Down NOLA is evidence of our self-hate. This paternalism saddens me. I have observed how post-Katrina activists sowed distrust by convincing some of us who came of age over the last 13 years that Black New Orleans needs outside leadership, that any resistance to that leadership is evidence of our oppression, that it puts us in service to white supremacy.
While exposure to new ideas, new relationships, new experiences inevitably changes us, justice does not come by accepting guidance from people who only want to be in relationship with you insofar as they can take credit for changing you.
If Zulu’s aesthetic is meant to transform, I trust that the social aid & pleasure club will be responsible for bringing that about. Until then, Black New Orleanians do not have to submit to any group, columnist, or self-proclaimed “movement” leader who wants to function as our cultural judge, jury, and executioner.
Daily, I am in awe of the brilliance that it has taken for us to protect our proverbial soul, our confidence in the value of our Blackness. It’s the part of us that knows our voices, experiences, and ideas are valid and guides us to share them without fear.
In the social justice minstrelsy embodied in the media spectacle they have created, Take ‘Em Down NOLA organizers may think they are educating and organizing us, but I think they have a thing or two to learn themselves.