It was the fourth of July our first year in Philadelphia. We went downtown to watch the parade and saw the strangest thing; a band of men wearing sequins from head to toe, carrying parasols, and playing instruments. They marched while playing saxophones, banjos, and even upright bases. I had never seen such a thing, and then a few floats later, there was another band just like the other. What was this madness?
“Oh those are mummers,” we were told . “What exactly are mummers?” we asked. “Ummm. Well, they are just, well THOSE are mummers… Just wait till New Years. It’s that right there.”
That sort of non-explanation is the norm for Mummers. They exist in Philadelphia and not so much anywhere else. There may be some variations in other places, but in Philly they are in every parade, have a long road filled with Mummers club houses, and every New Year ’s Day since 1901, there is the Mummers parade.
We went and watched the Mummers. They are, above all else, fun. Watching the Mummers you will see kids, even babies, dancing down Broad Street, hundreds of people not associated with a high school or getting paid playing live instruments, and lots and lots of bearded men is sequined dresses. We loved it.
Our curiosity piqued, we took a trip down to 2nd st. and Washington in South Philly to visit the Mummers Museum. The art deco building housed costumed mannequins from parades past and some explanations for this Philadelphia oddity.
It is thought that the traditions grew out of the British Isles’ mummers plays. There are reports of mocking mummer plays being held in President Washington’s honor while he resided in Philadelphia. In the early 1800’s it was normal to find roving bands of men dressed as clowns causing a ruckus during the holiday season. The tradition was formalized into the parade in 1901, making it America’s oldest continuous folk parade.
I learned these things by reading faded signs on dusty displays in a museum whose heyday appeared to be at least a decade ago. In one corner of the museum I was able to try a costume on. I pulled on a long glittering skirt with feathers around the hem, donned a sparkly vest, and placed a tall multicolored feather crown upon my head. I danced and posed for my wife as she took pictures. Wearing this fine regalia I squinted to read a faded sign off in one corner. As I did I removed my crown and began feeling sick.
The sign explained the origins of the Mummers signature dance or “strut”. The dance is a variation of the cake walk, a dance or strut popularized in black face minstrel shows in the very early 1900s. The Mummer strut is traditionally done to the tune Oh Dem Golden Slippers, a blackface standard. The sign also explained that from day one, till a city order in 1964, the parade was done in black face. The Mummers fought the ban but eventually lost. I am told there were once black Mummer brigades but they were banned in the 1920’s.
It was in a back corner of the Mummer Museum when I realized that in this very black city, I had never seen a black Mummer. It is possible one exists but I think the academic term for them is “statistically insignificant”.
I have met plenty of Mummers. Since reading that sign I have asked, and listened, to what Mummers say Mummery is all about. I have talked to people who have never read a thing I have written or have a clue to whom I am married, and not once has anything remotely racist been uttered. I hear lots of talk about tradition and fun. I have heard and read about music and family.
I like all of those things.
I have never read anything about black people or hate. It is as if anything racist was scrubbed off along with the black makeup. I have never even heard a mummer bring up the black face past. I am even willing to wager that most all of the Mummers under the age of 25 have no idea of the racist history or know what a minstrel show ever was. So in a very real way to them, and to most everyone, the Mummers are very much just family, tradition, music, and fun.
What a great object lesson about race in America.
The Mummers parade is fantastic, it is also very deeply and firmly sprung from racist roots.
So what is it now?
I am watching the parade now as I write this. I love it. I just saw a brigade perform a skit where a mass of commoners used a giant gold dollar sign to lure a donkey and an elephant into a trap where they could both be struck over the head by the liberty bell. I would encourage anyone and everyone to attend. It is guaranteed fun no matter who you are.
But were I ever invited, or had the opportunity to become a Mummer, I do not think I would do it. I cannot escape the memory of what I felt when all bedecked in glitter I read that faded sign. Watching the parade today I have not seen a black face, painted or otherwise. The bands and brigades are formed as clubs and other organizations. Many are tied up in family traditions and bloodlines. Black people need not be barred for these sorts of things to stay all white. The white people need not really be racist for a black person to not feel comfortable or welcomed.
So in this way the parade is like most everything.
Does what something used to be, forever taint what it is now?
How do we enjoy today when maybe yesterday isn’t all the way gone yet?