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The Mummers, for the umpteenth time, are facing allegations of using blackface in their New Year’s Day parade.
Similar to the dustup in 2019, the controversy revolves around a skit by the Finnegan New Year’s Brigade, which says the accusation is inaccurate, because the characters in question were played by Black Mummers.
“The characters portrayed in this year’s skit, Chris Rock and Will Smith, were both Black Americans,” troupe Captain Mike Inemer told Billy Penn.
That doesn’t automatically make it ok, said Ismael Jimenez, an author and educator who is cofounder of the Philadelphia Black History Collaborative. To him, that means the question isn’t one of blackface, but minstrelsy — the genre of theater for which blackface was created.
“I think the folks who did it were engaging in a form of minstrelsy,” said Jimenez, because of the venue and intended audience. “If you’re really, truly trying to have an authentic family event that really captures the spirit of Philadelphia, you need to do more work than using your Black members as props,” he added.
Minstrelsy and blackface are both inherently based in anti-Black caricatures, but are distinct things. Black minstrel performers existed and performed with and without face paint. Stepin Fetchit — the paradigmatic “coon” of Hollywood — was portrayed by Lincoln Theodore Perry, a Black man.
The Mummers Parade dates to the 19th century, the same period that saw the emergence of minstrelsy, of which Philadelphians were big fans. And it has a history of blackface, leading to a city-mandated ban in 1964. Despite that, it has continued to pop up. In 2020, two white people purposely and defiantly wore the face makeup, prompting a warning from Mayor Jim Kenney.
This year’s skit in question was titled “Slap Happy.” A tweet with a video showing part of the performance spurred a rush of comments about use of blackface; it has since been deleted.
Viewable in full at 25 minutes into this segment of WFMZ’s broadcast of the parade, the skit satirizes the slap Will Smith laid on Chris Rock at last years’ Oscars ceremony. The characters were joined during the performance by a third man in a dress; bald, he was ostensibly meant to depict Jada Pinkett Smith who has been public about her struggles with alopecia.
After some initial Fresh Prince fanfare, “Smith” slapped “Rock,” as it went down in real life. A Philly touch was added when both men then turned to slap a golden-faced version of Jim Kenney, who held a sign about not wanting to be mayor anymore.
Finnegan New Year’s Brigade isn’t a stranger to being in the hot seat. A troupe member was expelled in 2016 after yelling blatantly homophobic statements while marching. For some performers, toeing the line of what’s acceptable is part of the joy they derive from the event — for some, content they know will offend others is also part of the appeal.
The person who played Chris Rock this year, Darryl Young, is the same Mummer who previously stirred controversy and condemnation for Finnegan NYB’s 2019 skit, when he portrayed Jay Z walking a caricature of Mayor Kenney like a dog.
“I’d love to see more people of color get involved in mummers,” Young wrote in response to backlash at his participation. “I have a lot of fun and it’s a great Philadelphia tradition.”
The onus isn’t entirely on the Mummers to breach the jagged gaps of race relations in Philly, said Jimenez, the author and educator. But given the history of the parade, he believes Mummers ought to be among the most eager to have the conversation — firmly outside of a satirical setting.
“I would suggest for them to learn from history, to involve themselves in hard conversations with folks around the City of Philadelphia that aren’t part of their community,” he said. “Even after the Jay Z and Kenney incident in 2019, I didn’t see any of that being done.”
The Mummers Parade has long been and will continue to be a tradition that some deplore and others adore, each for reasons that hold some merit. Some are simply content to see a year pass without any performers in blackface.
“We’re all indoctrinated within the system, and we have to engage in a systemic process of unlearning to even gain a semblance of what the racial reality has been, is, and is going to be in this society,” Jimenez said.
“And people aren’t doing that work.”