Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Do Mummers really lack diversity?

The new Philadelphia Division is a well-intentioned gimmick.

Columnist Stu Bykofsky thinks the Mummers' new Philadelphia Division is a well-intentioned gimmick.
Columnist Stu Bykofsky thinks the Mummers' new Philadelphia Division is a well-intentioned gimmick.Read moreTOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer

THE ST. PATRICK'S Day Parade is overwhelmingly white - and Christian. Same for the Columbus Day Parade, the Von Steuben Day Parade, and the Pulaski Day Parade.

The Puerto Rican Day Parade is mostly Hispanic.

The Odunde celebration is mostly black.

I don't recall complaints that they were not "diverse" enough.

But mostly white, mostly male, Mummers, who trace their roots to ancient Rome and Greece (in the modern era, Sweden and Britain): Wow, what a bunch of racists!

It's enough to make a wench retch. (Which is not that hard to do on New Year's Day.)

Fact: Since the city created the parade in 1901, it always had minorities, not always warmly embraced. In decades past, the parade also had a few elements - a minority - that were racist, a product of their time.

The 21st century parade is more open and inclusive than ever, but because good is never good enough, this year we get the embryonic, city-suggested Philadelphia Division to join the traditional divisions - Wench, Comic, Fancy, String Band, and Fancy Brigade.

The Philadelphia Division is a gimmick, but a welcome gimmick, to formally reach out to groups that had long been welcome but didn't know it.

To understand that, you have to understand the parade's history, but a few loud and uninformed critics are more interested in making cheap points than in getting it right. For reasons I can't fathom, they hate the largest folk parade in the U.S.

Records show that the African-American Ivy Leaf and Blue Ribbon clubs both marched in the first Mummers Parade in 1901, probably as Fancies or Comics.

The Octavius Catto string band performed in 1928 and 1929, then disbanded, because of the Depression, it is believed. It later returned as the O.V. Catto Elks brass band and marched for 65 years with the Comics.

"Today there are several other black marching groups who participate in the Mummers Parade, and there are other black musicians in the string bands," wrote Pulitzer Prize-winner Acel Moore, an African-American, in the Inquirer in 1993 - 22 years ago.

So the 2016 inclusion of Second 2 None, the West Philadelphia African American drill team, does not break new ground, it recaptures old ground. I'm happy the team is in and I'm saddened there are not more African American groups - as there had been in recent decades. Why there are not is a valid question.

Some may have experienced racism, some may not care for Mummers music, some can't handle the cost, some just don't want to be bothered.

Some Mummerphiles believe African influence can be seen in Mummers' costumes and dance, and some regard the musically central banjo as a "black" instrument.

The Mummers' unofficial theme song, "Oh, Dem Golden Slippers," was written by James A. Bland, a black composer and minstrel who wrote about 700 songs. (The song title might be called racist, were it written by a white man. Maybe it would be. Funny how that works.)

The Comic Division once welcomed a wide variety (or diversity) of "outside" groups, providing stipends for transportation and hiring buses. When the city withdrew prize money in 2009, those funds dried up.

In past years, mariachi groups marched and performed, as did Irish clog dancers, Chinese dragon dancers, square dancers, drill teams, and steppers, with Comic clubs. The diversity was there.

Tomorrow. the Miss Fancy Brigade, a group of cross-dressers led by Brittany Lynn, will step off first. They "officially" were invited a few years back, but men dressing as women is a longtime staple of the parade.

The modern-day Wenches were the earliest Comics, said Mark Montanaro, a volunteer curator for the Mummers Museum. Men raided their wives' closets to costume themselves as women.

"In the '60s and the '70s, the Fancy Division had a category for female impersonators," Montanaro added. There were dudes in addition to wenches, but they slowly disappeared over the years.

Part of Mummery has always been masking one's identity.

Before the New Year's celebrations were organized into a parade, there was spontaneous partying all over the city, some of it raucous and mischievous, sometimes bordering on destructive. This led to the wearing of masks or blackening faces to prevent being recognized.

Montanaro doesn't know why "outside" minority participation dried up over the years. "Many of these groups would come out once or twice and then disappear," he said.

A lot of people have better ways to spend New Year's Day - such as sleeping, eating, and drinking in the warmth of their homes.

'A dream come true'

David Pina will pass all that up tomorrow.

The director of the Mexican heritage musical group Santa Carnavalero has been in Philadelphia 15 years and has seen five Mummers Parades.

Someone had seen his group perform and invited it to join the parade. "For me it is a dream come true," he said through an interpreter, "a part of this amazing city, Philadelphia."

He will bring not one but two bands to the street tomorrow with a total of about 32 musicians playing two kinds of music.

The banda la surena is a brass band, while the banda la que buena plays upbeat carnivale music.

Also on the street will be Los Bomberos de la Calle, which plays traditional bomba and plena music of Puerto Rico, I am told by director Tony Mendez.

His group usually has about a dozen musicians but is expecting more than 40 for tomorrow's performance. Mendez said he's excited "to be a part of something that's been around so long and is one of the big parades."

He told me he had no idea he could have participated long ago. That probably means the Mummers haven't done a good enough job letting everyone know the welcome mat is out.

The Philadelphia Division carries the mantle of diversity, and it is a good thing, even if it is not a new thing. Most clubs have women members, black members, gay members, Hispanic or Asian members. Not all are seen on the street. Some design or sew costumes, design or build props, work on the music or choreography.

George Badey is with the award-winning Fralinger String Band but also serves as spokesman for the Mummers Association. He regards more inclusion as necessary to keep the parade going another 116 years. Unlike the other parades I mentioned at the top, Badey said, this parade belongs to all Philadelphians.

And St. Patty's and Columbus and Odunde don't?

Of course they do, but they are celebrated everywhere. Mummery is ours alone in America.

Badey was one of the Mummers who met with Rue Landau, executive director of the city Commission on Human Relations, which fielded a small number of complaints about last January's parade. In a previous conversation, Landau told me she had attended several Mummers Parades.

The idea is to make the parade more inclusive, diverse, and family-friendly, which is good until you get down to the details.

Those are some skits in the Comic and Wench divisions that use humor - sometimes low, burlesque humor - and satire.

Their justification is that Mummer comes from Momus, the Greek god of mockery.

So when you see President Obama getting it from the Mummers, you have to know that both Presidents Bush, plus Clinton and Reagan, all were used as a bull's-eye, and I will eat the newspaper you are holding if Donald Trump doesn't get roasted tomorrow.

Mayor Nutter caught it, just as Street and Rendell had.

Every politician gets jazzed, and to not mock a politician because he is black would itself be racist.

Wrap your mind around that.

Some of the Comic sketches are funny, some fall flat, some are lame, and some may be considered offensive by some.

Here's where Landau and I (who marched with Landi Comics for a decade) part company. She doesn't want to run the risk of possibly hurting anyone's feelings.

How offensive is it really to depict Native Americans in colorful war bonnets or hillbillies in bib trousers? Have political correctness and hypersensitivity killed America's sense of humor?

My remedy? Close your eyes. Mummery is fun wrapped in free expression - protected by the Constitution - and if you can't swallow that, it's you who have a problem, not the Mummers.


Phone: 215-854-5977

On Twitter: @StuBykofsky