"They Were ALL in Blackface!"

Accusations fly on social media about the use of blackface in the 2013 Mummers Day Parade. Were they being racist? Or were they being artistic?

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.  

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

tom mummer January 05, 2013 at 04:06 PM
Hey , CV, in reading any discussion about almost anything, I have to negate the opponents points when the premise is based on someone seeing something that is NOT there. The "black saxophones" you mentioned may have been a problem if they were in fact saxophones that were painted black to depict a black person. However, they were NOT saxophones but musical notes that were only black because, in case you never noticed, music is almost all the time written in black ink So, you see, they were merely music notes that were given an animated face.
Nalin Olarikdej January 05, 2013 at 04:08 PM
Wow!! C.V., you would need the whole team of professionals to help you come back to reality. "If you don't like to get wet, stay away from the water", that's what my grandma would say.
Nalin Olarikdej January 05, 2013 at 04:20 PM
When people refer to history, I do not think it is because they are racist. Racism would be when you were trying to pick what color should you favor. I feel that when Ferko worked on their show, they haven't put the racist thought into it the way you do. Their work is art that refers to history and we shall take it as it is. Better yet, it is a very beautiful performance if I may say so. "Go Ferko!!" I am sure that you would rather read only portions of the history that favor your thought, not the way the reality presents. Good for you!!
Russ Loue January 05, 2013 at 07:55 PM
I do not want to pick a fight, and i do agree that our world is becoming to PC... Please watch a video from California News Reel, titled, ETHNIC NOTIONS. It will help many who wonder where all this is coming from. An easy parallel for many would be to look at anti-Semitic posters from the 1930's in Germany. In my opinion, there was a racial undertone. I will not begin to speculate on the intent.
Matt Skoufalos (Editor) January 05, 2013 at 09:08 PM
Russ--is this the video? http://newsreel.org/video/ethnic-notions
Russ Loue January 05, 2013 at 10:06 PM
Matt - yes it is. I believe the entire video is 60 minutes.
theresa barnett January 05, 2013 at 10:07 PM
All this political correctness is making me sick. I understand Free Masons has gained popularity also. How do you think they'll reflavor that one? It's the 21 century and I personally am open to truth.
C.V. January 06, 2013 at 12:36 AM
"So, you see, they were merely music notes that were given an animated face." LOL, what a convenient way to describe this! 'animated face'
C.V. January 06, 2013 at 12:55 AM
Is this rabid defense of racism (under the guise of 'the world is too PC') a Haddonfield thing? Why do I not find this surprising?
Rebecca Savastio January 06, 2013 at 07:03 AM
Russ, luckily, we have a quote from Ferko as to their intent, and the city director of the parade, provided by Tara Murtha of the Philadelphia Weekly in her article about this topic. This is the quote from her article: “We certainly did not wish to offend anyone in our presentation,” said Anthony Celenza, captain of the band, through the Mummers Association’s publicity director, George Badey. “We are a string band and our intent is to celebrate and entertain.” Badey points out that he’s known Celenza for 45 years, and vouches that there’s no way the group intended to be insulting to African-Americans."
Earle Leo Nelson Jr. January 06, 2013 at 07:55 AM
This part of the article says it all... 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.
Russ Loue January 06, 2013 at 11:57 PM
Rebecca, if you covered a float with swastikas and said they were native american symbols of peace, your intent might be sincere, but your understanding of cultural signage and myth are really bad, and you cannot escape them as, well, swastikas
Rebecca Savastio January 07, 2013 at 12:05 AM
Russ, it's interesting you brought that up. Hindus use swastikas in their daily lives. It's an ancient symbol of Hinduism, existing thousands of years before Nazi Germany. Of course they would (and do) include this symbol in their parades and celebrations. If one has a good understanding of history, one can understand the context and intent with no problem.
Earle Leo Nelson Jr. January 07, 2013 at 12:23 AM
Free Masons built this country, you cant escape that and tell me what was wrong with the Free Masons anyway? They weren't taxing us to death when they ran the Govt..
Shachi January 07, 2013 at 01:14 AM
That is a good point about the Swastika. It is an ancient Hindu Symbol and also used in many eastern religions. It’s considered very sacred and has been used over 5000 yrs. Being from India myself I know how sacred it is and it’s associated with the good. It later was associated with Nazi Germany after WWII in the western world. If there was a float depicting a Hindu tradition or ancient Hindu gods like Ganesha I would expect a red Hindu swastika as it’s considered auspicious (it has 4 dots in-between) as part of the decoration on the float. If someone displays a black swastika turned at a 45 degree angle with a white circle behind it with a red background, yes that would be offensive as that is associated with the Nazi Germany. It’s the intent behind it and what it symbolizes and where and how it’s displayed. One cannot just generalize and say they never can be used.
Russ Loue January 07, 2013 at 02:47 PM
Rebecca, Swastikas have been used by many cultures globally symbolizing many things, all, except for the Nazi's, were good. My point is not to dispute what it actually means. Culturally, you must understand the weight of an image, and how it is perceived by the majority of people within this culture. That is all. Symbols, imagery and signage have unfortunately been redefined by history and popular culture. It is not a bad idea to reintroduce things, challenge viewers (especially in the arts) but you have to be prepared for the reaction, and not be shocked by it.
Rebecca Savastio January 07, 2013 at 05:33 PM
Thank you Russ. I hope I didn't give the impression I needed a history lesson; I was only using Hindus as one example because they actively have large parades in major cities and are the first ones that popped into my head. And I'm not at all shocked by the reaction. I wouldn't expect anything different from white 20-somethings on Twitter.
C.V. January 07, 2013 at 06:26 PM
Maybe because 20-somethings on twitter seem to have a better grasp of what is and is not offensive. Lastly, the age / race demographics on twitter goes far beyond 'white 20-somethings', in face the greatest # of users are black. if you did your 'research' you would know this. I am still astounded by the piss poor attempts to relate Hindu symbols with stringbands using blackface, and even more astounded by the posts trying to somehow say the mummers are high-art (LOL!) . I feel like i am in the twilight zone. Again, is it just Haddonfield??
Maryann Campling January 07, 2013 at 06:32 PM
C.V......your comments might carry some weight if you had the courage of your convictions and used your real name.
Rebecca Savastio January 07, 2013 at 07:21 PM
C.V. I was not referring to overall users of Twitter. I was referring to the complainants in this case.
C.V. January 07, 2013 at 09:01 PM
Rebecca, are you turning Judge Judy on me?
European American. January 07, 2013 at 09:20 PM
first of all its black not african american to be an african american you would have to be born in africa than move to america. second, blacks refer to white poeple as white boy and crackers all over movies and tv and no one blinks an eye. they have their tv stations and colleges and programs. god forbid white people had any of that. we need a jesse jackson of our own to stand up for white rights and equality
William January 08, 2013 at 04:02 PM
Actually, When one hyphenates, African-American, Italian-American, etc, it refers to ancestral roots, not birthplace. More importantly, a simple rule of thumb, would you feel comfortable doing or saying something about a racial or ethnic group in front of a group of said people (who are not friends), or a supervisor, client, teacher, etc. If not, it's probably racist. This display, is clearly so.
William January 08, 2013 at 04:09 PM
@Will, did you seriously suggest it's okay to have a "tribute to minstrel shows?" Wow.
Russ Loue January 08, 2013 at 09:23 PM
You are welcome Rebecca, a Cultural Anthropology class might be more appropriate.
Rebecca Savastio January 08, 2013 at 09:39 PM
Russ, I was simply thanking you for leaving a comment. I am already very well versed in both history and cultural anthropology.
michael mirra January 10, 2013 at 01:33 AM
There was a time, when minstril shows were popular that a troup of black performers preformed in black face themselves. It has become synonomous with the racist culture, but it was a form of entertainment that black people themselves enjoyed & they themselves, in blackface, didn't find it derogotory. I think it's all up to the frame of mind of the person who puts black face on. You can't imitate an art form, unless you imitate the art form. People that think to acknowledge race is bigotry only feel that way because they are bigoted in their own heart & assume that any differentiation must be racist because it's racist to them.
michael mirra January 10, 2013 at 01:42 AM
The perception of a symbol is in the mind of the perciever. Many percieve the Confederate Flag as a symbol of racism. To many southerners it is, but to many, it is the symbol of National Pride that I never understood until I moved to semi-rural Florida in 1972. They consider thier country to be 'The Southland'. In the children's history books-I was a school teacher in Tampa- the Civil War wasn't called the Civil War. It was called 'The Southern Struggle for Indepenence'. In those days, Lincoln's birthday was a national holiday. They refused to honor Lincoln, so in Tampa that's how Gaspirilla Day was born. Some symbols mean different things to different people.
Babs Ann January 10, 2013 at 11:19 AM
From Philly, raised with watching the Mummers on New Years Day, the complaints are ridiculous. A Philadelphia tradition of colorful costumes, skits and music entertains all races. No one from Philly would even think of the word racist when attending a Mummers Parade or watching it on tv from home. The more colorful the costume, the better. I think my friends nephews were in the skit which is being discussed
Rebecca Savastio January 10, 2013 at 06:24 PM
Michael, that is a really interesting point. That's why I question the reason the vast majority of people complaining are white. One can easily scan the crowd and see many blacks folks enjoying the parade, and no group representative of African Americans, such as the NAACP, has come forward to complain that they found the parade offensive. No one on any discussion thread I have seen, this one included, has had anyone say "I am black and this performance really upset me." The people complaining are white 20-somethings on Twitter who smugly think that they know better than the black families enjoying the parade. White people really love to make the rules and tell everyone how to feel, and they're still doing it now by insisting that the performance was racist, even though Ferko has clearly described their intent, and that intent was not to offend or hurt anyone, but to delight and entertain. As for me, I was raised my entire life hearing over and over again how Al Jolson was one of the greatest men who ever lived BECAUSE he fought for civil rights, and was instrumental in getting black people on Broadway. I remember my father telling me those stories and holding me on his lap singing The Wabash Song, which Al Jolson sings in The Jazz Singer. My dad loved how Al Jolson threatened to punch any restaurant owner who wouldn't let a black person in. So, yes, I look at an imitation of Al Jolson and racism is the farthest thing from my mind.


More »
Got a question? Something on your mind? Talk to your community, directly.
Note Article
Just a short thought to get the word out quickly about anything in your neighborhood.
Share something with your neighbors.What's on your mind?What's on your mind?Make an announcement, speak your mind, or sell somethingPost something