Philadelphia Mayor Warns Mummers to End Blackface or Risk Parade

Alan Yuhas and Derrick Bryson Taylor
Members of a Comics club perform during the 116th annual Mummers Parade in Philadelphia on Friday, Jan. 1, 2016. Outrageously costumed Mummers strutted their stuff Friday at the city's annual New Year's Day parade, a colorful celebration that features string bands, comic brigades, elaborate floats and plenty of feathers and sequins. (AP Photo/Joseph Kaczmarek)

Mayor Jim Kenney of Philadelphia warned this week that if leaders of the city’s Mummers Parade did not put a stop to the use of blackface by some participants, the centuries-old New Year’s tradition would be in jeopardy.

In a letter sent to five leaders of Mummers divisions, as the brigades of costumed revelers are called, Kenney said that time and time again, the racist behavior of a few participants had “cast a shadow” over the carnivalesque tradition, which dates to the Colonial era and has become an emblem of Philadelphia.

“The repeated inability of Mummers leadership to control the use of blackface by some participants threatens the city’s continued support for the parade,” he wrote. “Despite your progress in recent years, every time a parade participant mocks our black community through the willful, ignorant use of blackface, it exacerbates the parade’s association with racism and bigotry.”

Blackface has been banned at the New Year’s Day parade since 1964, but it and brownface have never been eradicated, despite condemnations from Mummers associations. In 1985, a string band petitioned organizers to be able to use blackface; in 2016, several people painted their faces brown in a Mexican-themed group; and this year, two marchers painted their faces black.

“You must understand the anger and frustration of those who feel strongly that taxpayer dollars and corporate funds should not be devoted to supporting this event,” Kenney wrote in the letter, dated Jan. 21.

The Mummers divisions loosely organize many groups under broad banners — there is a Comic Division and a Fancy Brigade — and their leaders have always struggled to police the behavior of groups and participants. Kenney, himself a former Mummer, requested a meeting of the leaders with the city’s managing director, and proposed several changes to how the Mummers organize.

“We agree with his chain of thought that some things have to be improved,” said Richard Porco, the president of the Comic Division. He said that the groups had improved “a lot over the past four or five years,” pointing to sensitivity training in 2016 and increased city oversight of the theme each group chooses.

Porco said that the two marchers with black-painted faces this year had put on makeup during the course of the parade, calling them “two knuckleheads that took it upon themselves to put blackface on out of 10,000 marchers, approximately.” He said that the Mummers do not condone blackface, but found it difficult to police amid the thousands of people wearing colorful costumes and makeup.

“We try to stop it,” he said. “But it’s going to be a hard road to haul.”

On Thursday, Councilwoman Cindy Bass introduced a bill that would penalize people who wear blackface at the parade, including with a $75 fine and a ban of up to five years from the parade. The bill is not final, she said on Friday, noting that it would have to take into account legal protections for free speech.

But she said it was overdue to push the Mummers into better self-policing. “Every year, we have this conversation on Jan. 2; every year, they say it’s going to be better, it’s not going to happen again,” she said. “And it happens again.”

Bass said she hoped the final City Council bill would include a potential ban for groups whose members broke the rules. That way, she said, members would be more motivated to stop bad behavior and say, “‘I’m going to pull you aside so that you’re not embarrassing our city in front of our audience, so that you’re not participating in this racism.’”

She added that there had long been a disconnect between Philadelphia’s African American community and the Mummers, noting that the participants are predominantly white. “There has been a feeling of exclusion and of disrespect by the Mummers that has been allowed to permeate forever,” she said.

The Mummers tradition in Philadelphia first took shape in the 17th century, as German and Scandinavian immigrants blended their Christmas and New Year traditions into a chaotic and often drunken celebration.

In the 1800s, waves of Irish, Italian and Polish immigration brought new traditions, and the event became a “real melting pot of cultures,” especially in the working class, said Stephen Highsmith, a former broadcaster who wrote a book on the history of Mummers.

“The costuming, originally, was taking pretty much what was on the wash line, a wife’s dress, a potato sack — anything you could get your hands on — and being silly and drinking,” he said. “Part of its heritage is to be disorganized and chaotic.”

Over the centuries, old European practices of blackface became intertwined with the rise of minstrel shows in the United States, and major cities like Philadelphia were often where they met.

After the parade was made a city-sponsored event, in 1901, some of the people involved “brought performances from the minstrel stage directly into the Mummers Parade,” said Christian DuComb, a professor of theater at Colgate University.

“In some ways, we can see the afterlife of the minstrel show on display in the Mummers Parade even now,” said DuComb, who is also the author of a book on race and street performances in Philadelphia.

The tensions may have reached their highest point in the civil rights era, when judges ruled against allowing blackface, in part for fear of bloodshed.

That long history has faded in the minds of many marchers today, if it was ever taught. Many young people who take part associate the Mummers with family tradition and the city’s identity.

“Two people don’t define 10,000 people,” said Matt Kruc, 31, a South Philadelphia resident who plays in a brass band in the parade. He said that for him, the day was about community and family. (He has taken part for 25 years, his father for 54.)

“This day is so special, the atmosphere and the feeling that people give you and the way the street comes to life,” he said. “It’s the only day that you can be a rock star with a trombone.”

His father, Andrew, said that when he hears the first brass bands on New Year’s Day, “I get a lump in my throat because I think of my loved ones that I did it with and have lost, and now I’m doing it with my kids.”

The marchers who wore blackface had caused an uproar in his neighborhood, he said, adding that he thought thousands were now “paying the price for the foolish actions of two people.”

Despite the civic pride the event can create, frustration has mounted — along with calls to change, if not end it entirely — with each new case of offensive conduct by people in the parade.

“It’s weird,” Highsmith said, that the Mummers Parade “has such potential to be the bridge between peoples and has become this lightning rod of polarization.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


© 2020 The New York Times Company



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