Yesterday found Broad Street, from City Hall southward, swollen with brightly colored walking epithets who marched through the streets of Center City for Philly’s annual gallery of tone-deaf, aggressive, and insensitive ignorance (also known as “tradition”): the New Year’s Day Mummers Parade.
For the first time in its 115 year history, the parade was not held in South Philadelphia, but stopped at downtown’s boundary at Washington Avenue. Organizers say that the truncated route was designed to draw larger crowds to watch the choreography of the various passing Mummer divisions or brigades – each performance more rife with pejorative depiction than the last.
Acts included a Cowboys vs ‘Indians’ battle, featuring all Caucasian actors, which of course broke into a game of football (in which many participants wore fragments of Redskins jerseys). This followed with a brigade of “Asian” men in kimonos. Every ethnic casserole was topped with at least one large, fluttering Italian flag.
Give this video recap a watch, and be sure you view the football game performance, and, of course, the obligatory chant of “USA! USA! USA!”[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=abnsWipDNz0]
Another group was later spotted holding placards seemingly mocking the recent birth of the “Black Lives Matter” movement:
And the debauching of the city did not end at the edges of Broad Street or with the closing of the parade – participants and spectators alike had run of the city from Two Street to City Hall, making their raucous rounds of alcohol withdrawals and urine deposits, with no respect given to location.
Twitter was awash in criticism that the annual event was permeated in racism and cultural appropriation – not to mention general incivility in the forms of public urination and heaps of garbage strewn on streets and adorning trees – and those critics on Twitter didn’t need to work hard to prove their point.
Philadelphia’s Al Dia, the city’s Latino daily, has taken the position that the parade needs to be more inclusive in order to be be preserved. Al Dia‘s Twitter account yesterday called for diversity among participants in order to reform the event, and its image, to exist among contemporary institutions such as desegregated schools and women’s suffrage. Much of the engagement from the greater community was skeptical. Some commenters felt that persons of color performing acts from their own cultures would “ruin” the event.
Sabrina Varvoulias, Al Dia‘s managing editor, tweeted the following as a case-in-point for a more inclusive Mummers Day:
The Mummers Parade, by its very DNA, is a largely-unrepentant racist affair that has no business existing in 2014. What DNA, you ask?
In an in-depth City Paper examination of the Mummers’ historical underpinnings by Emily Guendelsberger, she writes:
While the early days are fuzzy, one thing’s clear: In the 1830s, rowdy bands of proto-Mummers shooting guns off like Yosemite Sam started showing up at holiday time in arrest records and in the diaries of irritated rich people in Philadelphia proper, the area now called Center City. The drunk, costumed men were seen as a dangerous nuisance — the first formal parade in 1901 was essentially appeasement, as the city, unable to keep things under control in the holiday season, bribed the Mummers with prize money to hold their celebration organized on Broad Street. There was a definite sense of “At least we know where they are now.”
“In contrast to older, rural themes of semi-human disguise, Philadelphians commonly impersonated kinds of people,” writes Susan G. Davis in “Making Night Hideous,” a 1982 paper on historical South Philly holiday traditions published in American Quarterly. The two most popular types of disguises were the ones that required the least effort: “Wearing women’s clothing was an easy transformation and popular. … Dressing as a woman could be as simple as filching a sister’s dress.” And: “Blackface was a popular theme in the street Christmas from the 1830s. … Like transvestism, blacking-up was quick and cheap.”
Is it reasonable to conclude that a tradition grounded in such offensive displays and overt, celebrated acts of petty criminality – which, as the puddles of piss near Christmas Village and other parts of the city demonstrated yesterday – will never fully be rooted out, no matter how much inclusion and diversity are forced into the proceedings?
After all, blackface was banned over 50 years ago. And despite this fact, elements continue their willful ignorance and disrespect:
City parade director Leo Dignam told Daily News journalist David Gambacorta: “That’s banned. If we had seen that, we would have pulled that person from the parade.”
“We’ve been talking about this for 20, 30 years,” Dignam added. “It can’t be allowed, and it’s not right.”
And yet, blackface continues every year.
City officials withdrew the $150,000 in funds for the spectacle in 2008, certainly dealing a blow to the annual affair, although Sugarhouse Casino has agreed to a three-year sponsorship. The club’s numbers will likely continue to dwindle, however, even as they desperately attempt to keep their racist anachronism on life support – going so far as to accuse Mayor Nutter of subverting their tradition by stealing their costumes.
While, as Nutter’s office confirmed, it was in fact the Mummers organizers who requested that their parade be abridged to match dwindling attendance, perhaps it is time for citizens and public officials alike to not only rescind financial support but to end tacit acceptance of a hateful pageant, and openly decry this cavalier shame.
The Mummers parade does not need updating or reform. It is an institution that should be allowed to die.
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