This coming Tuesday is the culmination of the Mardi Gras season in America's Greatest City, New Orleans, LA. Known as "Fat Tuesday", it's the last day before Lent.
In the church it's also known as "Shrove Tuesday". The next day, "Ash Wednesday" begins the 40- day season, traditionally reserved for self- reflection and spiritual renewal among Christians.
In New Orleans, it also means the end of the Mardi Gras season, a non- stop bacchanalia and series of parades that started this year on January 6th and will end Tuesday night at midnight in a drunken public display of tourist- driven nudity and unbelievably tasteless behavior on Bourbon Street.
At exactly 12:00 AM, police will push all the revelers off the streets in the French quarter, and begin the general clean-up. By 2 AM, Bourbon will be deserted. Happens every year.
That's the tourist aspect of Mardi Gras. There is also the real Mardi Gras, the Mardi Gras that the locals enjoy. It doesn't have much to do with the "boobs for beads" atmosphere of the French Quarter.
Here's a nice link to the history of Mardi Gras in New Orleans that will save me from trying to encapsulate it.
Which brings us to Zulu. This year, frequent L by L participant, Mr. Freeland- Archer (not his real name), will be riding in the Zulu parade. Although the Zulu Crewe is traditionally African- American, they began to integrate several years ago in order to make some money for the organization, which is known for it's social work and neighborhood programs. Last year's king was a white businessman.
So, for a certain fee, anyone can parade with the Zulus. But there are rules: you have to wear blackface, even if you're African- American. You have to wear a kinky wig. You have to wear white gloves, black tights and a grass skirt. There's a dress code and a behavior code.
Okay, yeah, I know- it does sound kind of racist. But in New Orleans, it's not. Zulus are inheritors of a great tradition. Members are proud of being Zulus and have been since the first parade in 1909. The most famous king of the Zulus was Louis Armstrong in 1949, and it had been a lifelong dream of his, a most cherished wish.
Louis Armstrong as King of the Zulus
A wish shared by our friend, Mr. F.-A., who wished so hard that this year Mrs. F.-A. paid the fee and gave Mr. F.-A. the 60th birthday gift he craved so much. Tuesday morning at three AM he will head to the Hilton Hotel on St. Charles Street and get into the make-up: black on the face itself, white around one eye and the lips, then don his afro wig, change into his tights and grass skirt and pull on his white gloves.
He will have shaved his head and and his beard. Mr. Freeland- Archer, as most of his acquaintances know, never does anything in halfway measures. He will have his 100 coconuts to toss, plus a customized selection that he made himself, featuring postage stamp- sized photos of famous black people, ranging from Rosa Parks to Marion Anderson to James Brown. He will then board Sponsor Float Number One under the direction of Zulu Lester Pollard. This year's theme: golf (but no Tiger Woods jokes, please!)
He intends to toss the customized coconuts to black children so they'll be able to identify their heroes and obtain a sense of civic and racial pride. As New Orleans native son and bon vivant Edmund Robertson (not his real name) says, "You can't dishonor the coconut."
The parade is scheduled to start at 8:15AM and finish by 3PM at the corner of LaSalle and Jackson. Neither of these will happen at these times. The parade will really begin when it starts and end when it's done. After that Mr. Freeland- Archer will be a different man than he was the day or even the night before. He will be bald. He will be beardless.
But he will be a Zulu!