Philadelphia’s Mummers parade features blackface performance

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Over 10,000 performers all decked out in elaborate and colorful attire invaded the streets on January 1 to spread some New Year’s cheer for Philadelphia’s annual Mummers parade. It is known as one of the oldest folklore celebrations in the country.

From string bands to comics, this carnival-esque event has garnered a reputation for its over-the-top performances, elaborate costumes and sometimes raunchy thematic elements.

Although the parade’s message is supposedly lighthearted, some acts featured this year may have crossed the fine line of being politically incorrect into the realm of the racially insensitive.

Joseph A. Ferko’s string band performance, titled “Ferko’s Bringin’ Back the Minstrel Days,” features a troupe of white men dressed lavishly in purple and pink clown-like costumes with red-painted faces and drawn-on exaggerated white lips. Both the performance’s title and the actors’ appearances not so subtly reference blackface minstrelsy, a 19th century performance art where white actors would don makeup to portray offensive caricatures of African-Americans.

Music history and Africana Studies professor at University of Pennsylvania Guthrie Ramsey denounced the performance, saying it references a “dark” period of American history.

“What they’re doing is irresponsible and it’s unquestionably inappropriate for contemporary audiences,” Guthrie said in a phone interview with theGrio. “Ignorance is no reason to allow them to do those kinds of things.”

Blackface, in fact, has been banned from the parade in the early 1960s. The NAACP and the Congress of Racial equality petitioned the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas in 1963 to formally ban blackface performances in the parade. The petition, however, was criticized by Mummers, who claimed that it would ruin their tradition. In response, they staged a mock civil rights “sit-in” at the court.

Today, while spectators won’t see any performers with made up black faces, the practice has now been swapped for other elements that overtly allude to blackface culture. Aside from substituting the black paint for red paint, performers still have the exaggerated drawn lips and Southern-influenced outfits. The opening of Ferko’s string band performance had large cardboard white gloves, a traditional costume element of blackface actors. One of the large boards even referenced the white actor Al Jolson, the iconic figure of blackface minstrelsy from the early 1920s.

“The exaggerated lips, coupled with the banjo – this is unmistakeably linked to this period,” Ramsey said in a phone interview with theGrio. “They want to have blackface but not actually do it? My god, why would even go there? There’s so many other aspects you can celebrate in history.”

While proponents firmly argue that the event is merely poking fun at a tradition in which black face has always been incorporated, spectators took to social media and denounced the minstrel performances as blatantly racist.

Heated discussions on social media sites, such as Twitter, emerged over whether the parade should showcase performances that overtly stereotype different ethnic groups.

“Having a ‘minstrel show’ and exaggerated lipped mammys is still racist even if you go in pink face instead of black face, FYI #mummers,” tweeted one user alrightalex1.

And Ferko’s band wasn’t the only act that made some spectators uncomfortable. Another performance titled, “Indi-Insourcing” showcased white performers dressed in Native-American headdresses riding faux horses around a teepee, alongside men and women dressed in traditional Indian costumes working at a mock call center called “New Delhi Call Center.” The performers, both adults and children, later all broke out into Psy’s “Gangnam Style” dance routine.

“It was a skit.  It was designed to poke fun. It was a satire on a very timely political issue which is job outsourcing to India,” said Mummer’s spokesman George Badey to My Fox Philly.

But while blackface has been a part of the parade since the beginning, “Indi-Insourcing” was a new performance that shocked some viewers who felt it crossed the line of political correctness.

“I think it’s concerning that there are any skits that play on dumb stereotypes of people who, largely, aren’t included in the parade.” wrote Dan McQuade from the Philly Post. “The “Indi-Insourcing” skit isn’t really mean-spirited, I don’t think. But Mummers should think about how unwelcoming some of the skits come across.”

Follow Brittany Tom  on Twitter @brittanyrtom