According to the Mummers own website, “The Mummers Comic Division traces its roots back to the ancient world, the Middle Ages and colonial America — throughout which, satire, mockery, and light-hearted fun have always been the name of the game.”
This ethos smacks of white fragility by preemptively defending all their behavior, good or bad, as “historical” and hearkens back to the good ol’ days for white-led institutions, when they could get away with racist practices. As a third generation Philadelphian, I know too well the collective memory of 118 years of the Mummers’ disrespect toward African Americans and other minority communities. I know the Mummers' storied and racist history from my great-grandfather, who explained to me in my youth how the Mummers paid poor black children in South Philly to play the role of “monkeys” in the parade in the 1930s.
Although it was reprehensible decades ago, that behavior fit with the existing environment of white supremacy. What is inexcusable and unacceptable today is that the Mummers continue to exist with financial support from the City of Philadelphia. Like clockwork, every Jan. 1, there is a problematic Mummers skit — and every Jan. 2, there is outcry and apologies.
This year’s controversy included Darrel Young, a black performer, depicting rapper Jay-Z and walking a white performer depicting Mayor Jim Kenney like the mayor was a dog. City Council President Darrell Clarke condemned the performance, calling it an act of minstrelsy and classifying the behavior as blackface. It made sense, given that for decades, the Mummers wore blackface as part of their offensive skits.
Meanwhile, the Mayor’s Office released a statement arguing that because the performer portraying Jay-Z was an African American man, there was no use of blackface. And local media outlets, including this one, grabbed on to the supposed error by Council President Clarke, but did not delve deeply into the historical and contemporary acts of blackface and minstrelsy.
Instead of talking about why these actions are triggering to people of color, the mayor and largely white local media, focused on a misperception and misunderstanding of how the Mummers impact people of color. There’s no question in my mind that that is gaslighting, designed to make black people feel like they are crazy for seeing racism in a situation that white people claim is inoffensive.
Contrary to the belief of some, wearing blackface is not contingent upon the person identifying racially as white or black. It is a cultural term used to describe the act of performing a caricature in the service of white supremacy.
Just because the Mummers were able to get a person of color to play the role of Jay-Z, doesn’t mean that the skit wasn’t offensive. Offense is determined by the marginalized, not the offender or those on the periphery.
Skits like the Mummers’ Jay-Z performance continue and validate historical forms of racism, where African Americans are paid to play derogatory roles for the enjoyment of white audiences. Think back to early minstrel characters, such as Bill “Bojangles” Robinson and Zip Coon.
In the late 1820s, a blackface Zip Coon, whose famously wide lapels share a remarkable resemblances to the outfit worn by Darrel Young in the Mummers Parade, parodied a free black man attempting to conform to white high society by dressing in fine clothes and using big words. Whether they knew it or not, Zip Coon was exactly who the Mummers were alluding to when they parodied Jay-Z.
I believe that the Mummers, as an institution, are far beyond salvation, because racism is so baked into their DNA. It’s time for the city to stop financially supporting the Mummers.
Mayor Kenney has a long history with the Mummers organization — including previously participating in the parade himself — so he should recuse himself from all decisions related to the parade, but I believe that City Council should take up the issue before next New Year’s. With City Council elections looming in the year ahead, now is the time for voters to let their representatives know that this is an issue that matters in the voting booth. And it shouldn’t just come down to which candidates support the Mummers and which don’t. Council should consider adding a ballot question so voters can weigh in on whether they think the city should continue to spend money to support the Mummers.
A city that values inclusion and diversity should back rhetoric with action.
“For just one day you are kings and queens of the City of Philadelphia!” the Mummers site reads.
It’s time for Philadelphia to dethrone the 2nd Street monarchy once and for all.
Tayyib Smith is the cofounder of Little Giant Creative.