Mummers Are Willing to Talk Rationally About Blackface, So We Should Too
You know it’s going to be a good year when, on Jan. 2, you wake up the subject of a Stu Bykofsky column.
Byko’s beef was my Storify post on New Year’s Day rounding up Twitter reaction to three skits in Philadelphia’s annual Mummers Parade that offended a number of people. To quickly recap: One of those performances, with a Rastafarian theme, featured at least one man with his face painted brown and donning a dreadlock wig. (I caught this skit live on TV during the parade.) Another featured performers dressed up as Indians and Native Americans. And a third was titled “Bringin’ Back Those Minstrel Days,” evoking pretty much exactly the controversial images of blackface you’d expect from the title.
In the Daily News the next day, Bykofsky wrote:
“Out there in the twitverse—that’s not a typo—some donkey sees blackface in the Mummers Parade and—kazaam!—as many as nine people on a couple of different ‘platforms’ are finding other forms of ‘racism’ in the parade, drawing insipid conclusions from their aggressive ignorance. Before you can say, ‘What a load of crap,’ it winds up on storify.com (yeah, me neither) as a story or analysis—it’s hard to categorize—by my friend Tara Murtha, who has done some really serious, penetrating work, of which this is not an example.”
Man, there’s a lot of stuff packed into that short paragraph.
For starters, clearly I have to explain what Storify is and what it’s used for. The post in question didn’t “wind up on” Storify, I created it with Storify, a tool that allows you to search, organize and display social-media reactions to specific events in a simple, readable manner. Journalists have used it to trace the propagation of reporting errors—for instance, in the early hours of the Newtown massacre. Most often, it’s used to cleanly display a roundup of people’s online responses to newsworthy events.
In this case, I used Storify to collect and showcase the real-time negative feedback I was seeing to the Mummers Parade—particularly, to a skit called “Indi-insourcing” by the Venetian New Years Association. In the performance, as can be seen online, four men with red dots on their heads and flowing garb dance behind a sign reading “New Delhi Call Center.” Then a teepee floats into view, opening to reveal performers in buckskin Native American costumes galloping on plush horse-head sticks, and the sign flips to read “New Jersey Call Center.” The point seems to be to suggest stopping the trend of outsourcing employment—or, as a Native American Facebook friend of mine put it, “We don’t need to exploit THOSE Indians because we have our OWN INDIANS to exploit!”
As evident on Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, where over 33,000 people have so far viewed a video of “Indi-insourcing” under the title “Mummers WTF,” the negative reactions weren’t limited to my personal circle. And herein lies Bykofsky’s problem: He comes across as ignorant not just of new media tools, but of the perspectives of anyone who doesn’t think like him. That’s a problem, of course, in that journalism is fundamentally about telling other people’s stories.
Before even declaring his opinion, Bykofsky dismisses everyone who doesn’t share it as a “donkey.” He wraps the word “racism” in gratuitous quotes, which is a passive-aggressive way of accusing said donkeys of expressing faux outrage, of wielding empty PC sentiment for the sake of it—better known as pulling the race card. He dismisses the opinion of anyone who doesn’t see things his way as “aggressively ignorant.” Their opinion is “insipid.”
After ginning up all that juice, Bykfosky builds to this climactic conclusion (drum roll, please): “If you’re offended, here’s a buck. Try to buy a sense of humor. Or an ounce of sense.”
Well, that advice doesn’t get us very far if we’re actually interested in asking questions and gaining insight into the world around us, does it? For instance: Moving from the intentionally “comic” Indian skit to the more straightforward “Bringin’ Back Those Minstrel Days,” what was Ferko String Band thinking when they proposed an explicit minstrel theme for their performance? Did that give the String Band Association, which approves the themes of groups participating in the Mummers Parade, any pause? Did the performers depicting Native Americans in buckskin and Indians with red dots and Jamaicans with brown makeup and fake dreads think to speak with the communities they were depicting? Should they have? Is it possible to celebrate other cultures without being offensive, and if so, what does that look like? Who is the Mummers Parade meant to entertain, and who is it meant to represent?
(Note: Though the recession has forced the city to stop funding the Parade’s prize money, the event, like 10 other parades throughout the year, is still publicly subsidized in the sense that Philly picks up the policing tab. The mayor’s office estimates the cost this year at $188,000, not including extra officers assigned to the “Two Street” after-party. PW sent Mayor Nutter’s office video of the performances in question, but did not receive comment on them aside from a spokesperson’s note that the city does not censor the Mummers’ free expression and that any aggrieved parties are free to file a complaint with the Human Relations Commission.)
Between hurling insults, Bykofsky points out that I pointed out that blackface has been outlawed by city policy since 1964. He goes on to mention, for mysterious reasons, that I was not born yet when this ban went into effect. This is true, and all the more reason why I was surprised to see it.
Some will argue there was indeed no blackface in this year’s Mummers Parade because performers did not, technically speaking, exactly copy the 1840s style of blackface makeup with burnt cork and woolly wig. In Ferko’s skit, performers donned the exaggerated white greasepaint lips of blackface minstrels, but didn’t shade the rest of their faces in with black. Though such a rush to strict dictionary definitions warms my heart as a writer, it seemed to me that calling this “not blackface” by way of technicality would be questionable. So I consulted an expert.
Dr. Kimmika Williams-Witherspoon is an associate professor of urban theater at Temple University who’s currently working on a book about the history of minstrelsy in Philadelphia, complete with a chapter on the mummers. She actually laughed when I asked her if the lack of black makeup around the lips in the context of the theme meant it wasn’t blackface. “It’s the intent behind the action,” she says. Evoking blackface, she says, is politically fraught—whether you want it to be or not.
Historically, Williams-Witherspoon says, blackface has been used “as a way of playing with the fascination with blackness without having to be trapped with all the markers of blackness.” In other words: Despite the technical go-around, of course that’s still blackface, because it’s contextualized in a clear evocation of blackface. Ferko’s performance was titled “Bringin’ Back Those Minstrel Days,” with costumes including hats that have musical notes featuring Sambo-esque faces. The historical moment being referenced isn’t ambiguous.
Whether the performance could be academically classified as blackface or not, Ferko String Band maintains that it was not their goal to offend. “We certainly did not wish to offend anyone in our presentation,” said Anthony Celenza, captain of the band, through the Mummers Association’s publicity director, George Badey. “We are a string band and our intent is to celebrate and entertain.” Badey points out that he’s known Celenza for 45 years, and vouches that there’s no way the group intended to be insulting to African-Americans.
I’d suggest that their sincerity nonetheless misses a broader point that’s become clear in the Internet era of instant, worldwide mass dialogue: You can’t take a famously, iconically racist image, tweak it a bit for propriety’s sake and then use it as simple décor, as if it’s free of racial overtones. Well—of course you can, if you’re determined to do so. But you shouldn’t be surprised when those for whom that image holds a much deeper impact see it and find it offensive.
In discussing the gulf between the performers’ intent and audience members’ interpretation, let’s set the term “racist” aside at this point; different people use it to mean different things, so it won’t accomplish much here. Just stick to the observable fact: Some of the Mummers Parade’s skits were offensive to a number of Philadelphians and beyond. Video of Ferko’s performance was featured on Slate yesterday, under the title “A Philadelphia Parade’s ‘Tradition’ of Racial Insensitivity.” Musician Erin McKeown blogged about it.
Now the question is, what can be done to move a conversation about that forward?
One thing is certain: It must include actually listening to people who are members of the groups being depicted. If you don’t care what they have to say, you’ve answered the question of who the parade is for: It’s for its participants only. Then why is it on television? Why are tax dollars going toward it? And what’s all that talk about the parade being not just a spectacle but a cultural phenomenon, a proud Philadelphia tradition?
Badey, the Mummers Association’s spokesman, agrees that mummers need to listen to, and learn from, outside perspectives. “The Mummers Parade should be seen as the Mardi Gras of Philadelphia,” he says. “It is a jewel that Philadelphia should be promoting on the international stage. The mummers themselves should continue and widen efforts to encourage diversity and to monitor theme components for unintentional effects.”
So—bringing this discussion back to where it started—it turns out that Stu Bykofsky’s sneering defense of the controversial skits is far more intense, and less empathetic, than the more measured response of the mummers themselves, whose statement suggests they’re open to dialogue.
For the more ornery among us, let me spell it out: If you are not a member of the group being depicted in a work of art, you don’t get to tell a member of said group how they should feel about an outsider’s caricature of them. A man doesn’t get to tell me how to feel about a shitty rape joke, for instance, since he likely hasn’t had to encounter the actual threat of rape—just like I don’t get to tell black or Indian or Native American or Jamaican people what feelings they’re allowed to have about the way white people portray them for fun.
If a mummer group performed a skit costumed as Jewish men with faux big noses and glasses and money confetti and bankers’ keys, it would not be my place to advise Stu Bykofsky, my Jewish family members or any other Jewish person how to feel about it. The same would apply if the theme were stereotypically Italian, or Polish.
Sorry, but losing that old entitlement of declaring what perspectives are valid for other people to hold—the entitlement to demand they think something is funny, or not be offended by it—is the cost of entering the brave new world where more than just white men have a voice that counts. Apparently that’s more painful for some people than I could have imagined. (Note: Locating an arbitrary member of said portrayed group who, like you, is not offended does not constitute proof that those who disagree should shut up.)
It’s not just Bykofsky—who, in full disclosure, I am friendly with when I run into him in real life. I’ve already taken guff from over-defensive fans of the parade on Twitter for merely suggesting this conversation needs to happen—yet the actual mummers I’ve spoken to have all welcomed talking about it. So let me make this clear to the fans: We’re not trying to take away your parade. There are knee-jerk loudmouths on both sides, and then there are those who want to talk about these issues constructively.
Because traditions do evolve. Just look at how far this one has come already. According to the research of folklorist Dr. Susan G Davis, author of Parades and Power: Street Theatre in Nineteenth-Century Philadelphia, the Mummers Parade was originally born out of Christmas riots marked by racial murders. And that was just over a century ago.
Let’s not insult our own intelligence, though, by pretending that either the mummers or Philadelphia as a whole have achieved a “post-racial” community. We’re not. We have differences of perspective, and we’re capable of discussing them like grownups. So when we merely ask for a conversation, and the response is “Lighten up,” we know exactly what that means: Let’s lighten up so much that we sanitize all dissenting opinions out of the conversation till it’s blinding lily white.
And that’s not acceptable. Not anymore.