When I arrived in Philly calling cheesesteaks subs and ordering them with American cheese instead of Cheez Whiz, I used to go to the Mummers Parade. If that’s what Philly did for fun on New Year’s Day, I figured I would bundle up and go too.

Some black Philadelphians started pulling me aside to inform me about the parade’s troubled history and about various incidents they’d witnessed over the years. I heard them out, but tried to keep an open mind. I usually was out of town on New Year’s Day anyway.

Then one year, friends from my hometown of Washington, D.C., stayed over after a New Year’s Eve party, and I turned on the TV to introduce them to my adopted city’s culture. I disappeared into the kitchen to prepare snacks, then started hearing shouts: “What is this? Turn that off!”

I raced into my living room to see painted white men dancing around in crazy-looking African warrior costumes as part of some jungle theme. My friends — proud descendants of Africa — were outraged and insulted, and took out their fury on me. “What kind of city allows this?” one indignant friend asked.

I would look in on it from time to time, but that pretty much was the end of my association with the Mummers Parade.

This New Year’s Day, I was in Haddonfield, participating in a 5K run and hanging with friends afterward, so I didn’t watch more than a few minutes of the parade. But the next day, I couldn’t avoid seeing the many social-media posts by people outraged at a Mummer who appeared to be performing in blackface.

The performer, Darrel Young, is actually a black member of Finnegan New Years Brigade Comic Club. Wearing an oversize black suit with Jay-Z written on the back, he had made his way along Broad Street leading a man on all fours who was supposed to be Mayor Kenney attached to a dog leash. The skit was inspired by a Signe Wilkinson cartoon from last summer satirizing Kenney’s decision to continue allowing the Made in America festival on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway.

This July 26, 2018, cartoon by Signe Wilkinson portrays the aftermath of a dispute between Mayor Kenney and Jay-Z about the Made in America festival.
Signe Wilkinson
This July 26, 2018, cartoon by Signe Wilkinson portrays the aftermath of a dispute between Mayor Kenney and Jay-Z about the Made in America festival.

Overall, it wasn’t a bad concept, but the humor was lost on many, judging from the social-media outrage and pushback from local politicians including Council President Darrell L. Clarke, who erroneously accused the performer of having used blackface.

He later retracted that claim, saying, “Whatever the truth is of yesterday’s performance – if the individual portraying Jay-Z is in fact a member of this brigade, for instance – people of color know minstrelsy when we see it."

Clarke nailed it when he described the performance as “minstrelsy.” That’s what I thought, too, as I watched and rewatched a clip of Young’s performance. Granted, the brigade was trying to be provocative and wisely cast a black man as Jay-Z instead of using blackface, but the performance still left me looking at it side-eyed.

Young looks nothing like Jay-Z, one of the most powerful and respected moguls in music. Jay-Z pulled off a considerable feat by managing to keep the Made in the America festival on the Parkway. His fans take pride in that. For them to see their hero parodied as part of the Mummers Parade was a bit much. Another organization in another place could have done the same skit and nary an eyebrow would have been raised.

But this was the Mummers Parade, an event with a long and shameful history of racism. African Americans make up almost half of Philadelphia, and not all of us have recovered from those old wounds. To a lot of people who grew up in the city — and even some of us who didn’t — the boozy parade represents more than a fun start to a new year. This week, we got a sobering reminder of that.