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.

19 Responses to “ Mummers Are Willing to Talk Rationally About Blackface, So We Should Too ”

  1. brotherlovecity says:

    thanks for tackling this. I am aghast that we as a city passively support this institutional racism. the saddest part (although not at all surprising) is that they didn’t realize how offensive these skits were. since the clubs obviously cant be their own arbiters of content a more invasive approach to ensuring the mummers represent our city in a positive light is the only option. I dont want my tax$ supporting that nor do i appreciate how this casts my city in the perception of the country/world.

  2. Tom Bishop says:

    If the Mummers wanted to survive they would be seeking to reflect the diversity of our city. Our African American, Asian, Native American and other residents could participate displaying their cultural pride. Irish, Italians, Germans, English, etc. could do the same. Instead we get acts demeaning African Americans, Asians, and Native Americans. The racist groups in the Mummers, far from displaying any pride, are just pathetic and mean spirited. If the Mummers want to be part of a fringe group of racists that is their choice, but I will have nothing to do with them as long as they represent a minority of racist, clueless Philadelphians and neither should anyone in the city.

  3. south phily girl says:

    I have a love/hate relationship with the Mummers. I love the tradition and enjoy going to the parade and to 2 street. But almost every year I groan when I see what terribly offensive thing is on display and I don’t feel comfortable promoting the parade or even posting pictures on Facebook because it is rude to so many of my friends. I was so excited about the drag group participating this year and thought that we were finally making some progress. There is a lot of history and great potential there and I hope that the Mummers can evolve into a more respectful organization.

  4. Parade Watcher says:

    Music inspired by Scott Joplin, Music written by Stephen Foster, Dancing inspired by Bill Bojangles Robinson, Music written by Gershwin, Music sung by Jolson – who was a champion of Black Entertainers- Singing and dancing… NO BLACKFACE at all… No big white Lips … Big White Clown Like smiles – Yes…,, Bad taste? Maybe … “Off Color”? Maybe ….Bad CHoice? Maybe…. Etc. …. Racist ABSOLUTELY NOT ….

  5. Rebecca Savastio says:

    Excellent and in-depth article, Tara. I agree with your point that “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” and that’s why it’s so fascinating that the majority of complainants on social media, according to their photos, are white. That’s exactly what they’re doing- telling the members of other cultures how to feel about the depiction. Of note, the parade has spectators of all races including many African Americans. However, those spectators don’t appear to be the ones taking to social media to express how upset they are. I think that raises a bigger issue here, and one that has gone unmentioned, about classism among whites. Surely if the same folks making these accusations on social media were watching Kabuki theater at the Merriam or an expensive comedy show where race was the subject of jokes, they would not have the same reaction. But put any cultural reference whatsoever, historical or not, into the blue-collar Mummer’s parade, and it’s a perfect storm of white outrage. The other important point that keeps going missing from all of these discussions is the Al Jolson piece. As you know, the main stage they used in the performance said “Al Jolson, The Jazz Singer.” Al Jolson was a civil rights activist who threatened to “punch” restaurant owners if blacks were not seated and served equally to whites. He purposely used blackface to bring black music to white audiences, to foster understanding between races; and was responsible for the first black performers allowed on Broadway. These facts should not be omitted from the discussion. It unfair that Jolson’s contributions to African American rights are automatically considered offensive when they are depicted. Instead of hiding and burying these facts, we should widen the discussion to include how this era in history served to strengthen race relations and move us forward as a society. We should talk about how “fascination” with another culture can be transformative and liberating instead of denigrating if the intent is not to descriminate or do harm. That’s what art is, and that’s what Ferko intended.

  6. Rebecca Savastio says:

    One point I neglected to mention in my previous post is that it IS significant that they didn’t use actual blackface. By not doing so, they were able to retain the depiction of a musical heritage and era without the racist elements, just like Al Jolson did way back when. We can’t forget the history aspect here. I’m also surprised that Dr. Kimmika Williams-Witherspoon didn’t offer any additional insights on the theater history aspect while you were interviewing.

  7. Alleyne says:

    Rebecca, if you think that clearly evoking blackface, within the context of the days of minstrels, is devoid of racist implications, I kindly suggest you re-read this article including the comments of the professor whose engaged in scholarly work on this very topic. Playing with elements of blackface, clearly suggesting blackface (as only in blackface did any performer ever draw an exaggerated white outline around the mouth) the intent to portray blackface without actually blackening is clear. The problem is that it’s the uncritical portrayal, not the actual blackening, that’s the problem. A portrayal that isn’t rejecting the unquestionably racist element of this history but instead echoes it, even if not full-throatedly, is either trying and failing to elide the racism or intentionally embracing it.

  8. Spencer says:

    Stu Bykofsky is as irrelevant as the medium he works in.

  9. Rebecca Savastio says:

    Alleyne, excuse me, but I have excellent reading comprehension. Having a differing opinion does not mean I didn’t understand the article. The expert scholar said “it’s the intent behind the action” that matters, and Ferko said that their intent was to entertain and delight, which they did. Really, this whole thing is nothing but a bunch of white people sitting around making up the rules (as usual), feeling guilty, and being classist against blue-collar whites. Again, the point of Al Jolson as a historically tranformative civil rights activist is totally ignored so that this agenda of accusing Ferko of being racist can go on uninterrupted. If Jolson and others of his era were not racist; and, with intent, used their fascination of black culture for the purpose of furthering the rights of black people (which they did), then paying tribute to them in the same spirit of art and entertainment is not wrong. If the majority of black people in Philadelphia who went to the parade are so upset, then how come they are not up in arms the way the white people are? Maybe it’s because they were busy enjoying the parade. Look, I’m sensitive to any person of color who felt hurt or offended by Ferko’s performance, and I’m sure Ferko would apologize to any person of color who felt hurt or offended, assuring them that their intent was not to be racist. However, the people who are pitching the fit on social media are not people of color. And these same white people who are sooo soo offended and upset by the performance would go and watch any comedian make fun of other races, would watch a white man on Saturday Night Live dress up as Barak Obama (complete with face makeup!), would sit in many, many different types of “acceptable” venues where an art form is presented, and find it wonderful. There are other elements to vaudeville and the theater of the era which are not related to blackface that were presented by Ferko, such as the whole clown element. If you watch the performance, you will see mostly clown references. Should we simply ban the songs of that era, then, and wipe Al Jolson’s memory from history so that whites can go on feeling good by distancing themselves from the lower-class Mummers by wringing their hands about perceived racism? I understand how the performance COULD be perceived, but that’s not how they intended it, and as the scholar says, it’s the intent that matters. At this point, I’m not even interested in hearing any more white points of view on this, because, as the author here pointed out, the rules are not theirs to make.

  10. Tom Bishop says:

    To accuse those who are appalled at the ethnic insensitive by some clubs in the Mummers parade of “classism” is completely bogus. The participants in this display may be blue collar, but so are the African American, Native American, and Asian people they are stereotyping. Divide and conquer has been the way the 1% has been able to maintain its rule over the 99%. The display by the clubs doing the ethnic
    caricatures did nothing to promote class solidarity, quite the opposite. This display is getting national coverage and is yet another reason for people to trash Philadelphia, and as a live long Philadelphian, I resent that.

  11. Rebecca Savastio says:

    Tom, what reason can you find for the complainants being 99% white? Take a look at Ms. Murtha’s Twitter feed and the list of people who are upset about the performance. Their pictures are there. Conversely, look at the crowd at the Mummers. It’s not whites’ place to tell black people how to feel about this. Not one person here or in any of the discussions has said “I am black and I very upset and offended at this performance.” I believe the reason is because in general, whites become completely irrationally afraid at the mere whisper of a suggestion of anything connected with something that could potentially be considered racist. Watch a video on Youtube of white comedian Rich Voss, and take a look at the black audiences’ reaction to his jokes. He’s poking fun at them, pretty severely, and they’re laughing. Why? Because they understand the INTENT. They paid to go to his show. Now why is it that his black audience, and all the black people who watched and enjoyed the Ferko routine (just look at the crowd watching) are able to understand the intent of a performance, and white people are incapable of understanding intent? I don’t know.

  12. Rebecca, just a factual note for the record: Looking at the profile photos of the Twitter critics cited in Tara’s original Storify post, it appears to me that 4 of the 13 are clearly African-American and two more are of indeterminate ethnicity. I’m not sure what you’re referring to when you suggest that those complainants are “99% white.”

  13. Joe Banks says:

    Here is some free advice for Mummers: when you are choosing your theme for next year, Google it first. You may want to choose another theme if the definition reads “Blackface is a form of theatrical makeup used in minstrel shows, and later vaudeville, in which performers create a stereotyped caricature of a black person. The practice gained popularity during the 19th century and contributed to the proliferation of stereotypes such as the ‘happy-go-lucky darky on the plantation’ or the ‘dandified coon.’”

  14. mumfan says:

    Joe Banks, considering the string bands are musicians and entertainers, I’m pretty sure they know some history about Minstrels. However, I’ll bet YOU didn’t know this about Minstrels, that African-American minstrel shows were quite popular and successful and consisted of African-Americans painting their own faces with blackface. In fact: “Unlike white audiences, black audiences presumably always recognized blackface performance as caricature, and took pleasure in seeing their own culture observed and reflected, much as they would half a century later in the performances of Moms Mabley.” Interesting, huh?

    So to follow up what Rebecca has been saying rather well, the INTENT behind the performance was in no way meant to incorporate any racial overtones. They were out there paying tribute to the music, performers and entertainment from that era, without any political or racial motivations involved.

  15. Rebecca Savastio says:

    Stephen, I am not sure what feed you’re looking at. The one I saw had NO African Americans out of list of about 15 people expressing their outrage. As for the four African American people you mention, I would hope those four people woud accept the intent Ferko explained.

  16. Hi,

    I’m one of the folks who was featured in the Storify feed, and I am, in fact, African-American. Additionally, I watched the parade on TV and did see a few folks in the Jamaican skit actually wearing blackace. Additonally, I think anyone can be offended by blackface, regardless of their background.

  17. steveeboy says:

    nice job by Tara Murtha here. Rebecca Savastio, thank you for your informed perspective as well. Stu Bykofsky has some real issues he needs to deal with regarding the interactions of old philly with new philly. And it shows up in everything from his hatred of cyclists, his obvious ignorance/hatred of new and social media, and his refusal to engage with other perspectives on the mummers.

  18. solomon says:

    As an African American I can say that it is not surprising that the Mummers were essentially being racist with the acts that are being talked about. We are not past the years of racism, we are in the years of racism…the only difference is we cover it up and put a veil over it, we act as if everything is fine and dandy. This and many other examples show that we are not over it. To really leap over that hurdle a reevaluation of our society and our conditioning is the most important thing;the way we think and perceive things, understanding our privilege and so on.

    It does hurt to see such things as a African American, but to be honest I go through racist things almost on a daily basis in the city of brotherly love, and not just from people outside my race but from people inside my race. Women go through bullshit every single day, multiple times in day…not just from the words that men speak but from the looks they give and so on. My point is that it is more than just racism, its the structure and inner workings of our society….its our conditioning. Its the ability that we have to be so individualistic that we will judge someone based on something as surface level as their appearance. If we cannot get past judging people based on what they wear or what type of clothes they choose to put on and so on….how are we supposed to get past this?

    The root of the problem is right in front of us. Our conditioning. We need to get to the root and understanding the conditioning and our consciousness. When dissecting such concepts I can assure you the root of the problem will be understood, until then all we are simply doing is going in a huge circle we cannot conceive.

  19. Azizi Powell says:

    It’s four months later but I would like to add to this discussion.

    I’m an African American female who grew up in Atlantic City, New Jersey. That city received Philadelphia stations and therefore I very much remember watching the Mummers’ parade every New Years Day. I also remember wondering why there were no Black people in that parade. I now know some of the reasons why it was and still is that the Philadelphia Mummers parade consist almost exclusively on White people in a city that has so many Black people & other People of Color. The Philadelphia Mummers is a family thing, and the White members of those Mummers clubs might have been and may still be quite satisfied with that. Also, Black people, Latinos, Asians, Native Americans, and other People of Color may not want to be a part of that parade, in part because it’s usually very cold in Philly on New Years Day. However, whether being a Philadelphia Mummer is a closely held family tradition and/or few People of Color want to participate in that tradition doesn’t excuse the lack of cultural sensitivity that continues to be displayed by Mummers in such offensive parade themes as the three in 2013 (the honoring minstrelsy theme, the Indian call center/Native American theme, and the Jamaican theme). And, btw, I don’t believe that intent excuses one’s actions when it comes to cultural insensitivity. Even if the Philadelphia Mummers are okay with being a family based parade, it seems to me that the adults would want to be better role models for their children. And if the corporate sponsors of this parade want good publicity for their sponsorship and if the administration of the Philadelphia Mummers parade want that parade to get good national & international publicity and national air time, it seems to me that they have to be mindful of basic cultural sensitivity.

    **
    I included a link to this article in Part I of a two part post that I’ve just published on my zumalayah cultural blog. Those post provide more information about what African American influences beyond the strut parade walk and African American James A. Bland’s song “Oh Dem Golden Slippers.”

    It’s my position that the type of elaborate feather outfits that are worn by divisions of the Philadelphia Mummers (fancy, fancy brigade and string divisions, excluding the Comic division) were purposely copied by the Philadelphia Mummers from the earlier African American Mardi Gras traditions which in turn derived from the Caribbean Jonkanoo traditions. I find it hard to believe that it’s just a coincidence that those Philadelphia Mummers feathered costumes so closely resemble the Mardi Gras Indian costumes. Furthermore, my informal research leads me to believe that those Caribbean Jonkanoo traditions mainly came from West African masquerade traditions such as the Nigerian Egungun festivals.

    The first part of that post provides quotes from online sources about the clothing attire that was worn by early Mummers. The second part of that post provides videos for comparison of the Philadelphia Mummers, Jonkanoo paraders from the Bahamas, West Indies, and the New Orleans Mardi Gras Indians. The link to that Part II post is http://zumalayah.blogspot.com/2013/04/the-black-roots-of-philadelphia-mummers_4.html Zumalayah The Black Roots Of The Philadelphia Mummers (Part II).

    Those posts do not imply that African American influences were the only influence on the Philadelphia Mummers parade traditions. Without any question, the Swiss, British and German customs- key among other European Christmas and New Years traditions- influenced the parade traditions & practices of the Philadelphia Mummers.

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