Race is Complicated: Mummers

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?on broad

“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.mummer,useum

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.

Standing there in sequins and feathers I felt betrayed.inthemuseum

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?

Happy New Year… I’m spending the rest of today enjoying the parade.winners

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5 Comments

Filed under events, history

5 responses to “Race is Complicated: Mummers

  1. TAt

    I’m guessing you wrote this before the whole tribute to the Minstrel Show thing happened. I’d love to hear an update to this article and how your family reacted to the whole “it’s not really blackface because we gave them white skin and blue eyes!” nonsense the Ferko band put out there.

    To be honest, overall this was the most racist parade I’ve ever watched.

  2. mommalynn

    I believe the answer is one: If you can’t let go of the past, you are not forgiving-Two-look forward with a love toward your fellowman.

  3. AKT

    Bro-You should have ended this post after the sentence” We loved it.”
    There is nary a scintilla of racism in the roots of mummery dating back to the Roman laborers celebrating Saturnalia through to the German and English and Swedish celebrations around New Year’s eve and day when masks were worn to disguise one from evil spirits and guns were shot to scare away same.
    Yes, there was a period when blackface was present…but mainly limited to the comic divisions. The Fancies and String Bands did not generally use blackface. In any event, the parade jettisoned the use of black face during the height of the Civil Rights movement and that should be lauded, not cited as a historic reason for derision. Further, Oh Dem Golden Slippers was written by an African American and his grave is near my home. Mummers groups visit the site yearly and pay tribute to this lyricist/musician regardless of his color.
    You do state that you love it and would encourage attendance. But you imply a suspicion of racism nonetheless by suggesting black people are not welcome or would not feel welcome. That is just not the case and hence where I think this post veers toward the objectionable.
    Indeed, I know a top local jazz musician who is music director for a major string band. This band would heartily welcome eager new musicians regardless of race…believe me…they need the talent from any quarter to stay competitive. If you noticed, many of the musicians i the bands are women…another present day non-issue in a parade that years ago was all men.
    Being uncomfortable with the Mummers because at one time some used black face and thinking the Mummers Strut is an issue is tantamount to vilifying today’s Major League baseball because at one time Jackie Robinson was subject to racist hatred or not liking the song ” Take Me Out to the Ballgame” because african Americans were barred from the game until the late 50’s.
    This year you may have seen the drag queens featured during the Fancy Brigade portion of the show…perhaps another small piece of indicia that this popular and uniquely Philadelphian community festival continues to adapt and evolve as all things must.

    Next year I invite you to join me on Broad st to watch the String bands from good seats near Sansom. I will be drinking a few celebratory beers with family and friends and wishing “Happy New Year” to all as I enjoy this wonderful tradition and the notion of racism will be far from the collective or individual mind or spirit.

  4. AKT, I was hoping you would show up…
    Like the title said, race is complicated.
    I do not think, and am not calling, the mummers racist. Though really I don’t think there is such thing as anyone being a racist or not being a racist… we are all on a spectrum, similar to greed or lust where we all experience these natural human inclinations but not all at the same levels, no one stays on the same point on the spectrum forever, and we must all simply do our best to move closer to the “good” end of the continuum.
    I enjoy mummery but to say there is no “scintilla” is absolutely turning a blind eye to not just a time period long gone, but the scraps of “insensitivity” that still linger today. Note when I say insensitive I mean it in the way that someone might poke another in an open wound because “hey, it doesn’t hurt me when I poke you.”
    The time period when the parade started was one of overt white supremacy campaigns nation wide. The influx of European immigrants previously thought undesirable were at this time exerting their “whiteness” and doing it at black people’s expense. It is one reason why minstrel shows became so popular. Rich and poor alike could all laugh and enjoy them as long as they weren’t black.
    Many black people, including the composer of Dem golden slippers, participated because it offered them money… something black people had little opportunity to have. The cake walk was a part of these shows, meant to mock black people trying to act fancy or act important but being too foolish to have any class.

    Is this connection to racist times all gone? I am willing to say that for most white people the answer is yes. I would say that more black people than white still get that connection and it makes them uncomfortable, no matter how welcoming the white participants may be.

    The comparison to baseball would only work if the game was originally played with a black ball painted with eyes and exaggerated lips.

    Then there is Ferko.
    I did not see it but I have watched the video since.
    http://thegrio.com/2013/01/03/philadelphias-mummers-parade-features-blackface-performance/

    Why would anyone want to go back to the minstrel days? Ferko planned a whole performance around celebrating minstrel shows? Why would you want to celebrate a whole genre designed to mock black people? They switched up the coloring of the Amos & Andy caricatures, which looked very much like an effort to not break the ban on black face while in reality that is exactly what they were doing. why would they do that? Perhaps they didn’t think it was racist, maybe that is not how they meant it, but where I have the problem is that if Ferko knew it would be offensive and seen as racist but did it anyway, that amounts to a big middle finger to the black people everywhere. And if it never occurred to them that it would be offensive, then they deeply misunderstand race all together… which is sadly very normal in modern white America.

    We, and I say “We” because I am very much a white guy, think the problem is in how we intend things rather than how others receive them, which almost always puts black people on the losing end of things.

    With all that being said, I will happily accept your invitation for next year. Just be warned that if Ferko or another group start to celebrate making fun of black people I will likely grab the beer out of your hand and throw it at them.

  5. AKT

    What I meant about “not a scintilla” refers to the roots in Mideaval Europe and Rome…no overtones/undertones there.
    Yes, The Ferko theme was questionable…indeed I thought of you and your reaction when I saw them perform New Year’s day.

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