Shani Akilah is over the Mummers.
A cofounder of the Black and Brown Workers Co-op, a Philadelphia group that organizes against oppression that affects minority communities, Akilah is urging the city to divest from the Mummers Parade entirely by refusing to dedicate any resources to it.
“If the city were to remove this thing,” Akilah said, “it would send a message that we are taking steps to show that we value, on some level, the black and brown citizens of Philadelphia.”
The calls for the city to quit supporting the Mummers' New Year’s Day parade with taxpayer dollars comes after a Comic club this year performed a skit in which two men depicted the rapper Jay-Z walking Mayor Jim Kenney like a dog. Some thought the man acting as Jay-Z was wearing blackface. Turns out he’s black and wasn’t wearing black makeup.
Still, scholars and some local politicians say the absence of black makeup does not mean the skit — featuring a man dressed in an outfit some saw as a caricature — wasn’t minstrelsy, prompting a meeting Thursday between Mummers representatives and black leaders.
So some are asking: Given the Mummers’ history, will the 118-year-old institution ever manage to not offend? In today’s climate, can the Mummers continue to exist?
The leadership of the Mummers Parade has long brushed off skits offensive to minority communities as either harmless joking or the actions of a couple of bad actors. Under Kenney (a former Mummer), city officials have moved to require racial sensitivity training for some Mummers and review parade plans, though they say it’s up to Mummers leadership to monitor groups on parade day to ensure participants act in a nondiscriminatory manner.
Since the official parade began in 1901, it has had some support from the city. Today, the city spends about $800,000 to cover Mummers-related costs, about $700,000 for police costs, city spokesperson Sarah Reyes said.
She said Philadelphia code requires the city to cover police costs for the event. The remaining city services, she said, have been paid for by the Greater Philadelphia Traditions Fund, a nonprofit established in 2010 to support community, ethnic, and heritage festivals.
In a statement Thursday, Kenney said there has been “a long history of racist themes in the parade, and while it has come a long way, it’s obvious that the Mummers still have much more work to do to ensure this is a parade that every Philadelphian can enjoy.” He added that the administration would expand its work with the Mummers, and urged the organization to commit more resources toward additional antiracism and antibias training for its members.
City Council President Darrell L. Clarke, who was criticized by the Mummers last week for releasing a statement stating the club was using blackface, didn’t respond to a request for comment. Clarke issued a second statement correcting the error, but saying that “people of color know minstrelsy when we see it.”
Aaron X. Smith, a professor in the department of Africology and African American studies at Temple University, said reducing the tradition of blackface and minstrelsy to something merely aesthetic, like black makeup, is “criminal and derogatory for those who have suffered marginalization and oppression.”
“I don’t care what you meant to do,” he said. “If someone tells you, ‘That’s not how I received it,’ at what point do you concede and defer to that and recognize humanity?”
The Mummers' anthem, “O! Dem Golden Slippers,” is itself a parody of a minstrel show, and Mummers — who put on skits meant to poke fun at current events — were seen wearing blackface as recently as 2015. The use of blackface in the parade was first banned in 1963 during the height of the civil rights movement, prompting some Mummers to protest at the parade leader’s house while wearing blackface. Tensions escalated, necessitating a court order to ban blackface.
In the mid-'80s, the South Philadelphia String Band requested it be allowed to use blackface in a Cotton Club-theme skit. It was denied. In 2003, the Goodtimers Comic Brigade’s skit celebrated Al Jolson, a minstrel performer who sang in blackface. In 2013, the Ferko String Band performed a skit with the theme “Ferko’s Bringing Back the Minstrel Days.”
The Mummers have satirized other minority communities. In 2013, one club’s theme included white members dressed as people from India working in a “call center” raided by “Native Americans.” In 2016, another brigade performed a Mexican-theme skit with sombreros and brownface. That same year, Finnegan New Year’s Brigade, the group that performed the Jay-Z skit this year, drew national attention after it went with a Caitlyn Jenner-theme skit punctuated by at least one member’s screaming antigay slurs.
Finnegan leadership did not respond to a request for comment. Darrell Young, the man who played Jay-Z, has defended the skit as “political satire.”
But Mia Moody-Ramirez, a professor at Baylor University and a leading scholar on the use of blackface in media, said it was a derogatory depiction of African Americans that was compounded because the audience was largely white.
“He’s not there to entertain his buddies or his friends,” she said. “It’s done for a white audience. And it’s just considered very, very negative.”
The Rev. Mark Kelly Tyler, pastor of Mother Bethel A.M.E. Church and an activist with POWER, an interfaith organization that promotes social justice, said the brigade’s use of a black person to represent Jay-Z was reminiscent of minstrel stereotypes. But Tyler, who is black, stopped short of calling for the end of the Mummers Parade.
“Even though I don’t like the Mummers Parade and believe it’s past its usefulness, if it ever had usefulness, I think they still have a right to do it,” he said, “but with some certain guidelines.”
Mummers leadership met Thursday with the Rev. Jay Broadnax, president of the Black Clergy of Philadelphia and Vicinity, and State Sen. Anthony H. Williams, a Philadelphia Democrat, who called the hour-long session an “extraordinarily candid and honest" conversation. Mummers spokesperson George Badey III said the goal was "to have more diversity in the Mummers Parade going forward.”
“We don’t want to offend people,” Badey said. “Our general rubric is, we want to punch up, we don’t want to punch down.”
Ron Goldwyn covered the Mummers Parade for the Daily News until he retired from the paper in 2004, and for a nine-year period in the 1980s and 1990s, Goldwyn put together a group of family, friends, synagogue members, and Daily News reporters to dress up as kazoos and march in the Comic Division.
Goldwyn, who is white, has attended every Mummers Parade since 1975, and said various Mummers groups are social organizations similar to American Legion posts or religious groups, where people gather in a clubhouse and bond. He said doing away with the parade could take South Philadelphia back to what it was before the formal parade began: Mummers groups holding individual celebrations and sometimes drunken brawls in the neighborhood.
“Doing away with the city parade is not going to do away with mummery,” Goldwyn said, adding: “I can’t look far enough into the future to see if there will always be a Mummers Parade, but I think there will always be mummers in Philadelphia.”
Chad Dion Lassiter, who was born and raised in North Philadelphia, said he heard little about the Mummers Parade growing up besides seeing it on television and recognizing that it was a South Philly tradition in the same way there are North Philly traditions.
But over the years, as Lassiter, who is black, became expert in race relations, he started hearing more about the history of the group that troubled him. Today, Lassiter heads the Pennsylvania Commission on Human Relations, and said while he recognizes the grand tradition the Mummers represent, the institution must change to survive in a city that aims to be inclusive.