The Zulu Coconut

It is with a mixture of regret and relief that I must announce the departure of my Zulu coconut from this earthly plane (or at least from storage in my home). The bell tolls for us all, and this coconut has surely traveled the earth longer and farther than most coconuts do: from wherever it was grown to New Orleans, where it acquired its glittering apparel for the Fat Tuesday Zulu parade; then from New Orleans to Memphis to various apartments in Philadelphia. Many such coconuts were delivered by Zulu krewe members into the outstretched hands of the crowd in the year 2004; I myself received two from my elevated seat on the shoulders of a tall boy I’d just met, and I offered him his choice of the two. Perhaps, somewhere in the world, my coconut’s contemporaries have also begun to flake off their glittery coats. (Perhaps they have long returned to the soil from whence they came.)

The lovingly hand-decorated Zulu coconuts are a coveted Mardi Gras throw, although for practical reasons they are not thrown but handed from the floats–hence my strategy of scrambling up a tall man. In the midst of a bacchanal of plastic, where beads and doubloons are showered upon an anonymous crowd, the Zulu coconut is a remarkably intimate gift in its creation and conveyance. Some krewe member spent an evening mixing glitter into paint and bedazzling coconuts; someone got up at dawn and put on his krewe finery and handed throw after throw to strangers until, sometime between 9 and 10 a.m., his coconut connected with my hands. When I look at my coconut, I remember the moment vividly: it was a cool February morning, and I was wearing a flannel shirt over the sunburn I’d gotten over the hot and sunny weekend. By Fat Tuesday, my friends and I had been drinking and yelling in crowds for days on end, but we dragged ourselves out of bed early in the morning and set up our cooler at Lee Circle to watch the final two superkrewe parades. We were joined there by the tall boy I’d met at a parade the previous Saturday, when he was dressed as a pirate. A male acquaintance who had been flirting with the pirate whispered to me “Hang onto him” as he left with another group of friends. I did hang on to him: for the rest of that parade season, and for several months of dating, and for many years of friendship.

When I look at this coconut, I am flooded with those fond memories and admiration for the work of the krewe. I am also flooded with embarrassment, because…. well, look at it.

Every Zulu coconut is unique. Mine is painted black with a silver glittery Z on top, blue eyes, and a red smiling mouth that reminds me uncomfortably of racist caricatures in old movies and illustrations–or present-day caricatures in Philadelphia’s Mummer’s parade, for that matter.

Dating back to the turn of the 20th century, the Zulu Social Aid & Pleasure Club is one of the oldest black Carnival krewes–and, at the same time, one of the first krewes to racially integrate in the 1970s. Today, the Krewe of Zulu rolls at 8 a.m. on Fat Tuesday itself, a prominent position in the culminating events of Mardi Gras. As they hand out coconuts and other throws, Zulu krewe members historically wear wigs, face paint, and grass skirts–a costume that dates back to its earliest years, as far as anyone knows. The Zulu parade costume has been subjected to criticism over its century of use: for example, a black community newspaper in the 1960s denounced the costumes as a “warped picture” of black culture, evoking caricature and stereotypes. Others have argued that Zulu style has always been about poking fun at white Mardi Gras traditions; since the krewe began as a black benefit society that served black communities and marched in black neighborhoods, one might infer that the exaggerated masquerade was intended to amuse a black audience and not to fulfill racist expectations for a white gaze.

Zulu coconuts are drained of milk and meat before they are painted; not all coconuts are painted with faces–the coconut kept by my tall friend was more of an abstract design, for example–but many do, thanks to the natural “eyes” at one end of the nut. With its high-contrast black and red and silver, my Zulu coconut resembles the facepaint worn by some krewe members. Did the bewigged and painted man who handed it to me paint this coconut himself? Who the painter have in mind when he gave this coconut its red-lipped smile? Probably not me, a young white woman seated on a tall white man. When I stretched out my hands to him, cheering hoarsely, what did I have in mind? Probably just a prize, a triumph, a one-of-a-kind experience. I was greedy–perhaps no more so than anyone else in the crowd, but white greediness for rare experiences served up by black hands is a troubling motif in tourism. So my Zulu coconut embarrasses me; it also humbles me, and that is not such a bad thing.

My love for the city of New Orleans and my cherished memories of living there are my own, but they do not exist in a void–they exist in the context of what bell hooks calls the white supremacist capitalist patriarchy, which both feeds and devours a city like New Orleans. I kept my Zulu coconut stored away for many years rather than confront its complicated significance; now that it is falling apart, I must reflect and refocus on the questions it raised for me, which I will always have to ask myself as a white consumer and a white Southerner.

RIP, Zulu coconut. Thanks for all the memories.

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