Essays

By Turns Offensive and Transgressive: Philadelphia’s Folk Art Mummers Parade

The 2016 Mummers Parade in Philadelphia (all photos by the author unless otherwise noted)
The 2016 Mummers Parade in Philadelphia (all photos by the author unless otherwise noted)

PHILADELPHIA — 2016 has not been a good year for the annual New Year’s Day Mummers Parade. Public displays of brownface, transphobia, and homophobia made headlines across the country, prompting many to question the place of the 116-year-old parade in an increasingly diverse city — and if it deserves to continue at all. There are no excuses for such vile displays of bigotry, and recent statements made by city officials and Mummer leaders indicate that they know it’s time for a long, hard look at themselves and the cultural traditions they’ve upheld. As an institution, however, the parade is much more than a procession of bigots; it’s a centuries-old form of folk and outsider art, of Americana. And like other examples of those traditions, it can be joyous, comical, transgressive, and deeply problematic.

The 2016 Mummers Parade in Philadelphia
Mummers in Philadelphia (click to enlarge)

Historically, the Mummers Parade plays an important part in the history of oppressed people in Philadelphia. It’s the oldest continuous folk parade in the United States, with approximately 15,000 people marching each year, and dates back in some form to the arrival of the Swedes in what’s now known as Philadelphia in 1638. The history of mumming stretches back even further, across the Atlantic Ocean to Europe and uncertain origins in the British Isles; a mummer in the traditional sense is simply a costumed amateur performer. In the early part of the 19th century, mummers existed in the United States as part of a working-class Christmas ritual found in many communities of recent immigrants: a bedecked procession of young men would march through their neighborhoods, going door to door and sometimes also performing a folk play. In December, as daylight hours dwindled and plummeting temperatures froze the creeks and rivers that powered factory wheels, workers faced unemployment; begging, drunkenness, and rioting were not uncommon. With little else to occupy their time, Philadelphia’s mummers of the 1830s began taking their celebration to the broader city streets, where they collided with other, more violent working-class customs like “shooting in” the new year by firing guns into the night sky, playing loud, cacophonous music, demanding free alcohol from pubs, and engaging in altercations with fellow revelers — all in costume and, mimicking the growing popularity of minstrel shows, often in blackface.

In addition to its troubling racial dynamics, the mumming tradition is steeped in a boisterous kind of class warfare. As Susan G. Davis writes in her 1982 essay “‘Making Night Hideous’: Christmas Revelry and Public Order in Nineteenth-Century Philadelphia”:

Those denied power, recognition, and adult status because of their weak position in the city’s economy could for once take over the respectable central district. In streets lined with shops and residences of businessmen, the world turned upside down as maskers forced the most decried features of their peer culture on the entire city. The young men created a giant exemplary display of noise, intemperance, and riot, and they seem to have delighted in the outrage they caused. Disguise expressed the point of view of working-class youth: in the patterned and selective transformation of identity, they discussed local social relations, outlining and emphasizing differences between different kinds of people.

The 2016 Mummers Parade in Philadelphia
The 2016 Mummers Parade in Philadelphia

This power reversal is maintained in today’s parade: contemporary Mummers are largely union plumbers, electricians, and contractors, many of whom were born and bred in working-class South Philadelphia and are descendants of the Irish, Italian, and Polish immigrants who once strove to find a sense of community by marching together on New Year’s Day. Every January 1 they dress up in elaborate costumes covered in feathers and sequins; invade Center City, one of the city’s wealthiest neighborhoods; blast top 40 bangers from truck beds stacked with speakers; perform choreographed dance moves; and drink the whole way through. They make their own props and backdrops, often carved out of cardboard, styrofoam, or plywood, and wheel them down the street on casters. Themes fall under a wide range of cultural pastiche: bootleg interpretations of movies (this year, in addition to a skit called “You Bet Jurrasic’s Good,” there was also “The CODfather: the SEAquel”), the historical (pirates, Ancient Rome, 1920s high rollers), the “exotic,” to them (Aztecs, Voodoo priests, Hawaiian Islanders), and the just plain weird (a group dressed as fat Italian waiters, several performances devoted to the Pope’s choice in cheesesteaks, a hundred guys all costumed as members of glam rock band KISS, holding tiny umbrellas). Groups of men dressed as ersatz women called Wench Brigades, as well as their like-minded counterparts the Comic Brigades, often delve into political satire — hence this year’s inflammatory “Wench Lives Matter” signs. No public figure is spared: several groups also hilariously lampooned Donald Trump, and past politicians that have been skewered include former Philadelphia mayors, Newt Gingrich, and George W. Bush. Costumes are often a mix of intensely labored garments styled in the distinctive mummer’s garb — satins trimmed with sequins, head and back pieces covered with feathers, skirts, wide bibs — paired with store-bought accessories like wigs, rubber masks, and funky sunglasses, all capped off with painted faces and the Mummers’ quintessential gold spray-painted sneakers.

The Mummers Museum
The Mummers Museum
Inside the Mummers Museum
A display in the Mummers Museum

The humble origins of the parade can be seen at the Mummers Museum, which sits at Washington and “Two Street” (as South Philadelphians refer to it). The building is a strange hodgepodge of fantastical architecture, with multicolored tiles and a spire with a flashing light on top. Despite its carpeted, curved staircase, the interior feels more like a VFW hall than a museum. Costumes dating from 1900 to last year’s first-place Fancy Brigade grace the halls. Upstairs, you’re greeted by a retro-futuristic clock counting down the seconds, minutes, hours, and days until New Year’s Day. Instead of stanchions, costumes are displayed behind yellow and blue police barriers and clothe vintage mannequins, often missing hands and sporting peeling paint in addition to their satin and sequins. Text in the museum honors James Bland, the author of the Mummers’ unofficial theme, “O Dem Golden Slippers” — interestingly, Bland was an African-American minstrel composer. A timeline in the hallway refers to Frank Rizzo, who served as Philadelphia’s mayor from 1972 to 1980, as the city’s current leader, making it clear that much of the museum has remained untouched since its inception in 1976.

Mummers dressed as Jamaicans
Mummers wearing brownface and dressed stereotypically as Jamaicans (photo by Jonathan Santoro)

By the nature of their chosen disguises, which frequently reference farwaway locales, Mummers often invoke the “Other,” sometimes in earnest, sometimes in jest, and too often in ignorance. Enmeshed in the cavalcade of weird and wondrous cavorting that makes up the parade, there are some who cling to deeply ignorant sentiments of heteronormative white privilege. While the parade has progressed significantly — this year adding a new division that aimed to increase diversity with an African-American drill team, Hispanic performance groups, and an LGBT contingent — blackface, brownface, white people dressed as Native Americans, and troupes denigrating Caitlin Jenner’s transition while members shout gay slurs have all been witnessed in recent years. The ACLU has confirmed, in response to this year’s controversy, that the city itself has no ability to force the parade to change, so change must come from within the Mummers’ own loose organization. New Mayor Jim Kenney, himself a former Mummer, tweeted his disgust with the intolerance seen at the parade: “Our Trans Citizens do not deserve this type of satire/insult.” Kenney has said that the city plans to work with the Mummers and may suggest sensitivity training, the pre-screening of acts, and other rules.

A Mummer wearing a Black Lives Matter outfit (photo by Courtney Blue)
A Rabble Rouser mumming for Black Lives Matter (photo by Courtney Blue) (click to enlarge)

The Mummers must come to terms with the parade’s racist past, and instead of glorifying it in the present, they must denounce it. Fortunately, some participants have started to, albeit in small steps. The Vaudevillains and the Rabble Rousers, both Comic Brigades that sprouted in recent years from local artist collective Space 1026, have been central to calls for change and diversity within the parade. The Vaudevillains issued a statement on January 2 condemning acts of hate seen at the parade and calling for new measures to be taken to create a more inclusive environment in the future. The Rabble Rousers, while officially taking this year off from the parade, had a small contingent of members who did march, among them a crow character sporting a message of equality: “Black Lives Matter” glittered large and clear on her back. Both groups have also used the parade as a medium to discuss social issues: the Vaudevillains tackled fracking in their 2011 routine, and the Rabble Rousers took up income inequality as their theme in 2014.

In many respects, in our age of Occupy Wall Street and the 1%, the kind of hierarchical shifting that the Mummers Parade represents seems a fitting sentiment. As the pace of gentrification in Philadelphia quickens, with slow-drip coffee shops and luxury baby-clothing boutiques popping up in areas formerly known for fish mongering and muggings, the city looks more like New York’s sixth borough with each passing year. This makes the Mummers’ distinctly local, DIY, transgressive grit feel increasingly important. The outsider qualities of the parade separate it from the mainstream, sanitized processions we see on TV, like the Macy’s Day Parade. The procession of amateur performers has itself become a more subversive act in an increasingly regulated city space. The Mummers exemplify much of what defines older generations of Philadelphia: a tough-guy, underdog attitude. But the City of Brotherly Love is changing, and the parade must change with it.

The Mummers represent a wild, exuberant, and frankly bizarre tradition that deserves to continue; where else can you see your electrician dance down the street as a sequined cow carrying a miniature umbrella? The Mummers represent Philadelphia’s untamed, fiercely independent spirit, and give a face to a working-class community. But surely those in historically compromised positions don’t need to denigrate other marginalized groups in order to make their point and have their fun. Mumming can and should be wanton, weird, disorderly, politically challenging, and inclusive.

The 2016 Mummers Parade in Philadelphia
The 2016 Mummers Parade in Philadelphia
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