Let’s talk about the Mummers.
More specifically, the controversy surrounding two skits at this year’s New Year’s Day parade.
First, let’s deal with the fact that the Mummers’ tradition is steeped in a significant brew of racism, sexism, and probably quite a few other “-isms,” with blackface being the norm up until 1964, when it was officially banned, and women being prohibited from participating until the 1970’s.
Any form of discrimination is wrong and terrible, and no one would argue that the Mummers, like America, have parts to their history of which they are not proud.
But like America, they’ve changed with the times. As history moves forward, so do organizations, and while there is nothing wrong with discussing historical contexts or objecting to the racist roots of the Mummers, there is something wrong with making up stories on social media which are pure fabrications.
It’s very difficult to find intelligent discourse on Twitter, but constant mooning over Justin Bieber doesn’t harm anyone. What’s harmful is when members of the public just make up facts that have no basis in reality and then publish them as truth.
'I saw a whole band of them as Jamaicans in blackface'
Take, for example, a proclamation from @lucindalunacy that says “I saw a whole band of them as Jamaicans in blackface.” Now, all over the internet, people are talking about the Mummers “doing blackface” when in fact the ban on blackface has been in place and enforced for 48 years.
The problem is, there was no blackface in the skit @lucindalunacy mentions.
The face paint used in the skit was primarily red, green, gold, brown and black, which matched the colors on the costumes. No one was wearing blackface, but rather a combination of many colors matching their costume, no different from any other skit in the parade.
Whether or not someone finds dressing in Jamaican costumes and colors to be racist in itself is another matter entirely, and raising this issue brings into question the very nature of satire, theater, artistic expression and the intent of the participant.
Perhaps all theatrics that make use of costumes and colors of other cultures for entertainment should be banned from all societies, and no one should ever don a different persona for any reason; art, theater or otherwise.
Should I be feeling bad about the times I dressed in a sari and did Indian dancing? While we’re at it, maybe we should do away entirely with Kabuki theater and almost all opera. Mardi Gras would also be totally out, of course.
In the recent movie Cloud Atlas, Tom Hanks, Halle Berry and Jim Sturgess, among others, play multiple characters of totally different races and genders than their own, so we’d have to do away with that, too.
Why stop at race, though? Let’s also ban dressing as a different gender or sexual identity, especially if it’s farcical. So goodbye to all Tyler Perry films (he dresses as different races AND genders!) the films Mrs. Doubtfire, Hairspray, Tootsie, Philadelphia (that Tom Hanks is a major culprit here, it seems), the tv show Will and Grace, and the straight guy who plays a gay character on Modern Family. We would also do away with most dance troupes, since they routinely dress in the clothes of, or wear makeup depicting, other cultures.
The point here is that theater and art forms sometimes find expression in imitating, celebrating, honoring, paying tribute to and even fondly teasing other genders/cultures/orientations (have you ever seen Rich Voss? How about Key and Peele?). If we do away with people dressing up in the clothing and colors of other cultures at the Mummers, we need to do away with it everywhere. But in all instances, we’d be robbing ourselves of art.
A tribute to Al Jolson?
The second skit in question was performed by the Ferko string band. This skit was “done in blackface” according to the Twitterverse.
While it included a tribute to Al Jolson (a man who fought vehemently for African-American rights), the participants’ faces were painted pink and white. It seems nearly any color combination of face paint the Mummers use can be considered “blackface” if the commentator doesn’t like the premise of the skit.
The performance was a tribute to the music and legacy of Jolson and was not a mockery of African Americans, nor was it intended as such. Jolson spent a good part of his life defending the rights of black entertainers and was instrumental in fighting for black equality on Broadway.
He delivered jazz and blues to white audiences, breaking down racial barriers and fostering a better understanding of African American culture. He’d march into restaurants and use his celebrity and political power to demand that blacks be seated and served equally. He was a civil rights bad***, and he is deserving of recognition and tribute.
When music can be associated with an entertainment genre and era that was deeply sullied by racism and mockery, it is only fitting that any modern person attempting to perform the music itself should be careful and thoughtful about its presentation.
However, the music exists in history, and Jolson used it to do something good for racial equality and progress. For this reason, enjoying it in modern times should not be met with contempt. We should not sanitize history to the point where we lose the art.
Interestingly, an Al Jolson tribute show in the UK was ordered to stop using blackface to avoid the offense caused by its usage, but according to the show’s producer “many people involved in the show are black” and ''None of the black actors in the show have a problem with black makeup, so why should a bunch of stuffy white theatre bosses?''
I use this example not to defend blackface, but to bring up the issue of the complainants themselves. One cannot help but notice from their profile pictures on social media that the majority of them are white, which calls into question why they are so quick to see something offensive that isn’t even there.
If you scan the crowd at the Mummers, you’ll see people of all races, and many African-American spectators enjoying the music and celebration. In fact, a very young African-American (maybe even Jamaican?) boy was a participant in the Jamaican skit, so obviously his parents didn’t have an issue with it.
At the end of the day, the people who should determine whether or not something is racist are the members of the community being depicted, not white people with too much time on their hands.