The Spray-painted Underbelly of Undulating Umbrellas: Bigotry and Complicity underneath the Glitter of the Mummers

It has been thus far well documented how much an abomination much of the Mummers parade has become for Philadelphia and the United States as a whole.  The abject, unapologetic, and pathetic display of racism, misogyny, and homo/transphobia illustrated by many New Year’s Associations are threatening to the very fabric of our democratic society.  Every year, we—as Philadelphians—have to be embarrassed by the hordes of draconian “tradition” who bum rush the PHL 17 cameras, undulating umbrellas bobbing like the booze in bellies, while their children learn how to hate.

To be clear, I’ve never liked the Mummers.  Maybe that one time I had a friend who lived on Two Street and we watched Penske box trucks blaring “Who Let the Dogs Out” (ten years after that was cool) while face-painted celebrants threw Pabst tallboys to everyone in the crowd (including kids) and the police just stood there smirking.  Maybe, at that time, I was like, “Wow, this is a real Philadelphia tradition.”  And maybe it is.

But maybe it’s time for it to be over.  Some things deserve to die out.

Because here’s the truth, whether Philadelphians want to hear it or not: the Mummers are shameful on three major counts, which can no longer be ignored:

1) The Mummers Parade is internationally televised, so a city that is on the up and up for progress, development, and prestige is beleaguered by a yearly reminder that smoking cigarettes and drinking Pabst on Broad Street while shouting racial and homophobic epithets is underneath Philly’s shine.

2) The Mummers represent the worst of Philly.  Philadelphia is a racist city.  Perhaps no more racist than any other city in the US, but unlike Chicago or New York or San Francisco, Philadelphia’s racism is on blatant display every January 1st.  It’s a foolish citizen of this country to claim that racism is extinct or dead.  As a culture, we like to cloak this (“Hey, we got a black president!!!”).  But the truth of the matter is we live in a city that is majority minority, but some traditions represent blue collar prejudices that have supposedly been eradicated from Americana.  The Mummers prove there is much to still be fought for—perhaps we should at least thank them for exposing the false consciousness of racial democracy in the US.  The majority of Mummers are blue collar, Christian, white, working class people with little education and experience in diversity.  I’m not trying to be a hater here; I’m just calling it.  The harshest thing about this is the people they hurt.  Imagine being black or Latin American or trans or a woman and—on the first day of the year, a time of new beginnings and clean slates—you see people in black/brownface cursing homosexuals and mocking trans identity, pissing in the alleys and punching people.  And here you are, in the fifth most populous city in the United States, this new mecca of industry and development.  Here you are in Philadelphia and this is what you wake up to in the new year.

3) The kids.  Racism exists because the institutions where it prevails are deeply engrained in the development and “progress” of our culture.  The only way to challenge it is if we confront the disease upfront, dynamically, directly.  Unfortunately, there are children both in the parade and behind the fencing of Broad Street and Two Street watching this.  They see mocking Jenner as okay.  They see mocking Mexicans as okay.  And they can perpetuate the fear and insolence when it’s their turn to don the golden shoes. In other words, kids learn to accept the cancer rather than confront it.

I’m not hating on the Mummers just because it’s in vogue to do so.  I’m hurt by what I saw, because I have a tremendous love and pride for this city.  I see so much good and wonder here that I am thankful daily for living in its bounds.  But I also agree with Julian Sands, from his book Flaubert’s Parrot, when he says, “The greatest patriotism is to tell your country when it is behaving dishonorably, foolishly, viciously.”  So here you go Philly, do something.

January first made me want to move out of Philly; find some cabin in the Poconos where I can be a misanthropic hermit and not believe what I saw.  Then, I instantly realized that that solves nothing.  Rather than run: run to the suburbs, run to disbelief; I need to stay and challenge this.  And I happen to be a writer, so…

I’ve written about the Mummers in two pieces of fiction.  When I complain here, I do so only about the Wench and Comic brigades that participate in these indiscretions.  Note that I do not believe all Mummers participate in this behavior.  I think the Fancy brigades are amazing, I think the String Bands are remarkable; hell, I even think the Pabst consumption is awesome—it’s so Philly.  But things have to change.

Here are my suggestions:

1) Boycott the Mummers.  Until these things are addressed, we don’t go to the parade.  We don’t go to the museum.  We don’t give them money.

2) We punish the NYAs that participate in this behavior.  Yearly suspensions and defunding of any group where an individual of the group or the entire theme is racist/misogynistic/homo/transphobic.

3) The city defunds them.  Here’s the most important part of my diatribe: WE pay for the Mummers to act this way.  That’s right, the city gives money to this parade, which means my tax dollars allow for this to continue.  If there is a sustained silence, the city is complicit in the infraction.  I’m a fan of free speech—as a writer, I have to be.  And I’m okay with a bunch of racist idiots shouting about how racist they are because that’s their American right.  But I’m not going to pay to enable it.

Jim Kenney is a South Philly guy who probably knows thousands of Mummers.  It will be interesting to see how he responds to what should continue to be voices culminating in a banshee cry against this blatant and overt horror.

Until things change, I will not strut and my silly string will remain in its can.

1 thought on “The Spray-painted Underbelly of Undulating Umbrellas: Bigotry and Complicity underneath the Glitter of the Mummers

  1. Reblogged this on Kelly McQuain and commented:
    Generally, I’m all for the working class and a big fan of folk festivals, but the Philadelphia Mummers get a black eye this year. On one hand, the newly added Philadelphia brigade allowed Latinos and drag queens and others to join the festivities. On the other hand, a few established groups are mocking the trans community and women and otherwise showing their general unenlightenment. The Mummers can do better, and in this WordPress essay Jeff Markovitz explains how.

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