Why everyone’s mad about the Mummers and blackface again

It has to do with a skit where Jay-Z walked Mayor Kenney like a dog.

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Danya Henninger / Billy Penn
michaelawinberg-square-crop-feb2018

Updated 6:03 p.m.

In the 119th iteration of the Mummer’s Parade, a black man was accused of wearing blackface while performing.

The performance, part of Philadelphia’s annual New Year’s Day festival, elicited social media outrage and statements from Mayor Jim Kenney and Council President Darrell Clarke, amid some confusion over whether there had actually been facepainting or not.

If indeed the Mummer was in blackface, it would be far from the first time. Past parades have included blatant instances of racism, sexism and hate speech. The 2019 festivities were no exception.

In fact, the offending skit was by the same group that came under fire for a transphobic jab at Caitlyn Jenner in 2016.

Walking Mayor Kenney like a dog

As the Finnegan New Years Brigade Comic Club performed for the judges in front of City Hall Tuesday morning, part of a skit illustrated this year’s infamous back-and-forth between Mayor Jim Kenney and rapper Jay-Z over the future of the Made in America. In it, a man dressed in a suit labeled “Jay-Z” walked a Kenney character down the street on a leash.

People quickly criticized the performance on social media, saying that the performer playing Jay-Z was wearing blackface. According to reports, the performer was not in blackface — his face appeared dark because he himself is black.

In an interview with Philadelphia magazine on Wednesday, Mummer Michael Inemer jumped to defend the troupe.

“That was a black American!” said Inemer, a representative of the Goodtimers Comic Club (the umbrella organization that includes Finnegan). “We’re not allowed to use blackface!”

And the performer in question — who at first asked to remain anonymous — denied the allegations as well.

“If it looks like I’m in blackface in the video, then people need to get new cameras,” the man reportedly told Philly Mag. The man later identified himself as Darrel Young, arguing in an open letter that: “There was no blackface. I am black.”

“A primary purpose of Mummers is to poke fun at our elected leaders, and, given the backlash, this obviously worked,” Young wrote.

The letter was forwarded to Billy Penn via a lawyer for the Mummers, George Badey. It is reproduced in full at the bottom of this story.

The mayor’s official statement jibes with that story. It notes that Finnegan had to submit its content for approval, like all clubs now do.

“The Finnegan group submitted its concept in advance of the parade, representing to both the city and Mummers organization that the performer portraying Jay-Z would be an African American male and would not be dressed in blackface,” Kenney’s statement read. “The Finnegan group says that it complied with its theme application.”

It’s wrong no matter what?

Pictures shared on social media of the performer in costume offer differing perspectives — and it’s unclear if the performer actually wore black paint on his face.

But whether or not the man was black isn’t the point, argued City Council President Darrell Clarke.

Clarke issued two separate statements on Wednesday, both slamming the Mummers. In the first, he called them out for using blackface — and then quickly followed up with a second, in which he admitted the troupe might not have been using blackface, but the Mummers as a whole are still racist and the skit was out of place.

“Whatever the truth is of yesterday’s performance…this event and related organizations undoubtedly have much more work to do to make all Philadelphians feel welcomed and included in this annual New Year’s Day celebration,” the second statement read.

Minstrelry and Mummery are old bedfellows

Clarke isn’t wrong — the Mummers have a racist and discriminatory history.

Parade organizers didn’t ban blackface until 1964. People got so mad that they protested the ban, and it was reversed right away.

In the 1960s, Mummers protest a ban on blackface... while wearing blackface.

In the 1960s, Mummers protest a ban on blackface... while wearing blackface.

Philadelphia Evening Bulletin via Temple University Archives

They officially re-banned blackface the following year — but that didn’t mean it was really over.

In 1985, the South Philadelphia String Band petitioned parade leaders to be allowed to use blackface again in a “Cotton Club-themed” skit. Their request was denied.

Then in 2003, the Goodtimers Comic Brigade performed an ode to Al Jonson, who regularly sang in blackface minstrel shows. People on social media allege that Mummers have used blackface and brownface as recently as 2015 — and this year.

Despite the event’s problematic history, city officials said on Wednesday that they remain committed to preventing discrimination at the Mummer’s Parade.

Open letter from Jay-Z portrayer Darrel Young

Screen Shot 2019-01-02 at 6.00.12 PM
Courtesy George Batey

 

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Tagged

Racism, Mummers