Two years ago, I wrote the following column entitled “Deep Roots” that you’ll read below. It came after an instance of Blackface at the Mummers caused an uproar.
One that we all thought would eradicate this as a problem.
What’s astonishing is that two years later, thanks to the events of this year’s parade, nothing’s changed, making it so I can literally run a reminder because of the density of some people and a sheer lack of insensitivity.
I know I’m a week late to the party piling on debate of what was yet another Mummers Parade mired in controversy.
However, given our publication’s namesake, I think that offers a pass.
I actually wasn’t going to even jump on the bandwagon, until I saw all of the reports that emerged from the Jim Kenney-Jay-Z skit that had “Black Philly” in uproar. If you’re lost on what I’m referring to, the quick synopsis is that many feel that a skit during the parade that depicted a Black man dressed as Jay-Z walking a another actor dressed as Jim Kenney was just the latest in a long line of racially charged minstrel shows the Mummers Parade has a long and unsavory history of.
“Every year the Mummers Parade is really an exercise in learning just how much the need for diversity and inclusion training in this city is paramount.”
Let me just preface this by saying I think the Mummers Parade can’t win. No matter how inclusive it tries to be in its satire, the whole parade in the eyes of many just comes off as a reminder that in the low-lying pockets of Philadelphia there are still some people who still see minorities as exactly that. Personally, I’ve always felt that it’s one of the dumbest traditions our city has. I equate it to standing in cages to watch the ball drop in Times Square for New Year’s Eve. It’s something you should experience, but once you’re there and see it firsthand, you quickly realize it only placates to a certain type of person.
In Philly, this last Mummers skit served as a sequin-donned reminder that despite all the talk, we are far from equal in a city that prides itself on being progressive. There’s just still too many who live here who miss the “Old Philadelphia.” The one that allegedly dressed unsuspecting Black children up to portray monkeys. Or the 2015 image of the white Mummer defiant in his wearing of Blackface despite it being pretty apparent that the use of face paint offended people in 2015.
It’s why so many people jumped the gun with this skit, coincidentally, many of whom have vigorously defended how African-Americans are portrayed in this city. Council president Darrell Clarke referred to it first as racist, but then relented still calling the performance “minstrelsy.” Asa Khalif, who runs the Philadelphia chapter of Black Lives Matter – for better or worse – has been one of the most outspoken advocates on reform as it pertains to police treatment of Black Philly and has announced his candidacy for a City Council seat. This week, on his platform site, Asa4Council.com, he called for the city to end the Mummers, calling it, “decades of racist insults to our city’s People of Color and citizens of conscience.”
To me, it’s always been right up there with the now-defunct chicken wing eating, stripper-laden, early morning debacle that was Wing Bowl. I think in large part because every year the Mummers Parade is really an exercise in learning just how much the need for diversity and inclusion training in this city is paramount. But we also need to hold accountable the politicians, activists, journalists and others who are quick to pull race into the equation.
Let’s try to leave the easy pull of the race card in 2018 and look to be a bit more strategic and overarching in our opinions in 2019. It’s just too easy to condemn something as racist or insensitive because it upsets our delicate sensibilities. Darrel Young did nothing wrong. Neither did the Finnegan’s New Year Brigade. But it’s their membership into a group that is a storied reminder of Philadelphia’s deep-rooted racist past and the undertones that are still ever-apparent in the present.
Did I as a Black man think the performance was racist? No.
I thought the premise lacked a true explanation, since I’m sure 99 percent (Jay-Z pun intended) of the people who saw it had no idea that it’s arguably now one of the most memorable cartoons by Inquirer cartoonist Signe Wilkinson. No one lost their mind when Wilkinson, a white woman, drew the cartoon and her publication published it, but the 3-D portrayal of two men of different races recreating the illustration rubs a lot of people the wrong way?
It’s because it’s not about the skit. It’s the fact of what the Mummers represents to a Philadelphia trying to become more progressive. The Mummers Parade is an annual reminder that we still have a long way to go.
That isn’t the best way to get Philadelphia in the right frame to kickstart the year with rosy outlook.
Even if some literally try to paint it on their face.