On Wednesday, the morning after the Mummers Parade, Philadelphia City Council President Darrell L. Clarke issued a statement condemning the Mummers Parade for a skit that, according to Clarke, involved a Mummer in blackface. “This annual New Year’s celebration has once again brought shame and embarrassment to the City of Philadelphia,” Clarke wrote. “The skit involving a blackface Jay-Z walking a long-nosed Mayor Kenney like a dog was offensive, racist, and not even a little bit amusing.” Clarke went on to say that the Mummers owe Mayor Jim Kenney an apology.
The hitch? The Mummer who portrayed Jay-Z was a black man and the skit had been preapproved by the Mayor’s Office, a protocol for all parade participants.
The skit was inspired by a cartoon drawn by the Inquirer’s Signe Wilkinson in response to last summer’s controversy over whether Jay-Z’s Made in America music festival would change locations. Following outcry, including an Inquirer op-ed written by Jay-Z, the mayor announced that the festival would stay put, prompting jokes that even the city’s top official takes orders from the powerful music mogul.
The Mummers Parade has a long history with racist, sexist, and transphobic skits, including Mummers in blackface, so Clarke’s accusation would certainly sound believable to many familiar with the parade.
The problem is that the facts didn’t hold up.
A few hours after the original statement, Clarke sent an updated statement in which he said that multiple people who viewed the clip believed that the performer was “a nonblack person in blackface.” Believing is not the same as knowing.
The statement also erroneously cast doubt about whether the black Mummer was actually a member of the brigade, a fact disproved by the Mummer himself, who wrote an op-ed for the Inquirer about his experience performing as Jay-Z.
Clarke also characterized the performance as minstrel, a sentiment echoed by Philadelphia magazine Business Editor Fabiola Cineas, who tweeted that the performance in front of a “super white” crowd is "pure objectification.” The role of black Mummers and how to make the parade more representative without being exploitative is an important and worthwhile conversation, one that Clarke can and should lead.
This is not the first time that a senior Philadelphia public official called out racism without having all the facts. In August, a black doll was found hanging with a noose around its neck in a Queen Village playground. Mayor Kenney said in a statement that he was “sickened” by the news and that it was proof of “how far this country has fallen when people are inspired by the hateful rhetoric of our President.” A couple of days later, two preteen boys — one black and one white — said that they hanged the doll as a prank. Oops.
In this era of instant outrage, it is easy to jump to conclusions. And in a city where racist incidents are not uncommon, it is good to have public officials who are vigilant about condemning that hatred.