Philadelphia Mayor Tells ‘Mummers’ Paraders To Ditch Blackface Or Lose Parade

Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney told the leaders of the “mummers,” that is, community groups who march in New Year’s Day parades in elaborate costumes, that if they don’t get a handle on some of their members wearing blackface, their parade is in jeopardy, The New York Times reports.

What’s A Mummer And Why Do They Have A Parade?

In much the same way that New Orleans has hosted Mardi Gras parades for centuries, during which participants dress in elaborate costumes as they march through the city, Philadelphia also has such a tradition, although on a considerably smaller scale.

Every New Year’s Day, “divisions,” as they’re called, of “mummers” put on elaborate costumes and parade through The City of Brotherly Love. Although the first “official” mummers parade marched through the city in 1901, by some measures the practice dates back to colonial times.

The Blackface Bugaboo

Blackface — where a white performer smears their face in makeup or soot in order to take on a comic stereotype of a black person — has been a part of mummers parades for as long as anybody can remember.

Officially, the practice was banned in 1964. Unofficially, however, it still goes on. And in fact, some mummers believe that dressing in blackface is something akin to a sacred tradition.

In 1985, a string band petitioned organizers to be able to use blackface. Blackface — or a version of it anyway — came up again in 2016 when several people painted their faces brown in a Mexican-themed group. In the 2020 parade, at least two marchers painted their faces black.

And Kenney would like to put a stop to that.

Kenney’s Warning

In a letter sent to leaders of several mummers’ divisions, Kenney made it clear that blackface, however well-intentioned, is symbolic of racism and won’t be tolerated in Philadelphia.

“Despite your progress in recent years, every time a parade participant mocks our black community through the willful, ignorant use of blackface, it exacerbates the parade’s association with racism and bigotry,” his letter said.

Kenney, himself a former mummer, also made it clear that, if mummers’ groups don’t get a handle on their members who want to wear blackface, the very future of the centuries-old tradition is in jeopardy.

“You must understand the anger and frustration of those who feel strongly that taxpayer dollars and corporate funds should not be devoted to supporting this event,” he said.

Richard Porco, the president of the Comic Division of mummers, made it clear that he’s on board with banning blackface. He says that the two marchers in his division who put on blackface, whom he referred to as “knuckleheads,” did so after the parade had started.

“We try to stop it. But it’s going to be a hard road to haul,” he said.

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