Michael Passio grew up in South Philly steeped in Mummers culture.
It was such a big part of his family that when his grandfather Jimmy Passio Sr. died in 2010 at age 87, mourners placed a sequined Mummers costume and a pair of golden slippers next to his ashes. He played the cymbals that day with his family’s Passio Fife and Drum Band.
That was then.
This year, the 40-year-old Cherry Hill resident wants no part of the Mummers Parade.
Instead of watching along Broad Street with his son, like he did last year, he plans to skip it.
Passio, who works as a heavy equipment operator, emailed me Monday evening saying he wanted to talk about aspects of the pageantry that disturb him, specifically the use of the term wench and its racial connotation.
I was intrigued. We met Tuesday at a Starbucks on Route 38 in Cherry Hill. As we talked, Passio flipped through the pages of Webster’s 1828 American Dictionary of the English Language and pointed to a definition of wench. In the first reference, the term is defined as a “young woman.” In the second, it is described as “a young woman of ill fame.” But the third reference describes it as “in America, a black or colored female servant; a negress.”
“It doesn’t matter how long ago it was,” Passio told me.
Passio says his outlook changed following his divorce and after he started traveling to destinations such as Egypt and the United Arab Emirates.
Now, the more he reflects on the Mummers and its racial baggage — its origins in 19th century minstrel shows, and that participants had to be banned from performing in blackface back in 1963 — the less he wants to do with it.
I’ve had my concerns about this annual tradition, especially when the seemingly inevitable controversies arise. Last year’s drama happened when onlookers, including Council President Darrell L. Clarke, initially thought a performer from the Finnegan New Year’s Brigade Comic Club was wearing blackface when impersonating Jay-Z, the hip-hop mogul.
Clarke 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."
I brought up Passio’s concern with Chris DuComb, author of Haunted City: Three Centuries of Racial Impersonation in Philadelphia, who assured me of its validity.
“I see it as rooted in the wench act of the 1840s minstrel show, which was a very specific form of performance in which a white male actor in blackface wore bloomers and a dress and carried a parasol, and did a dance to what was called a wench song," said DuComb, who has detailed the parade’s tortured history. “This act became in the 1840s one of the most popular components of the early minstrel show.
“It certainly mocked black women, but it also parodied the movement for dress reform and for women’s rights among women white and black, specifically through the bloomer costume piece, which was named for Amelia Jenks Bloomer, who was a dress reform advocate and wanted women to be able to wear pants,” DuComb added. “By making the bloomers visible below skirts, the wenches were very deliberately poking fun at the idea of women’s rights.… Sometimes the jokes that land the best with audiences are the jokes that are multifaceted or multidimensional. And we look back on that joke now, and it’s obvious that it was derogatory, that it was misogynist and that it was racist.”
Most modern-day Mummers probably don’t realize the origins of the joke or why it might possibly offend. They’re just having fun.
But, as DuComb pointed out, “that’s the history.”
Let’s hope that this year’s Mummers will be nicer. According to Billy Penn, the online publication owned by WHYY, they were told that it’s OK to mock politicians or celebrities but not oppressed minority groups.
We’ll see if they listen.
But Passio isn’t betting on it. He’s convinced that the Mummers Parade has no place in polite, modern society.
“The word mummer in Greek means ‘to mock,’” he said. “It’s not right.”