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I Can't Keep Mum on the Mummers

Everyone has a racist relative.

Sometimes the racist relative is transparently an evil, twisted person in every possible way. Oftentimes, at least in my experience, the younger the relative is that is still holding onto racism, the more likely it is that that person is just not a good person in any way. It sort of makes sense. What person whose young enough to have all their teeth would believe in racially exclusive laws? 

But on a more complex note, some of us have relatives that are unusually nice people, on a day-to-day timetable, but who are still viciously racist when the opportunity arrives. I have a great aunt like this. She's close to 100 now. I've never in my life heard my great-aunt say an unkind word to anyone, except once when I asked her about her childhood home.

My grandmother, great-aunt, and their ten other siblings lived in a bunch of neighborhoods. They started out in South Philly around 9th and Morris, near where my maternal great-grandparents had grown up. By adolescence, my great-aunt lived in Haddington, in West Philly, around 63rd and Media Street.

This was a long walk from me when I lived in West Philly, and I always asked questions about what-happened-here and what-happened-there to try to connect the dots of my environs to my own family's background. I asked my great-aunt what exact address she lived at, and she gave it to me, sharp-as-a-tack. My great-aunt is actually pretty spry, and I asked her if she'd ever like to go visit it with me. She responded without hesitation:

"I went there once. It made me sad. The neighborhood's all gone. It's all just blacks now. I won't go there. I'd probably get hit over the head."

It's not the first time I ever heard a relative say something racist, but old-nice-people racism is different and more irksome than middle-aged-kook racism. What really hits you hardest about it is the realization that otherwise decent white people were deeply racist in the past. These are white people that can tell you the first time they heard FDR on the radio, or how they came together around the war effort to defeat fascism. They're white people who wax romantic at the New Deal. And, of course, all the white people who fit that description aren't racist, but a surprisingly high number are. 

The Mummers are important to me as a "wooder" white person from Philadelphia. They're like my racist great-aunt. I love the Mummers. What is Philadelphia without its New Years' Mardis Gras? I didn't grow up with the racist part of the Mummers front and center. Old people sequins and feathers playing string band instruments and dancing like turkeys was just that.  My father was a Mummer. He never marched, because back when January was actually still a frigid cold month, he got pneumonia and had to park it at home. But because my dad had been a Mummer, and because it was an ever-present part of my childhood to see other Mummers, it's always felt like pure sawf prezzel Philadelphia. Wit da yella' mustard. Nah, no wooder-oyce please.

It was sad as an adult to look at something I grew up with and realize that even though most of the string bands don't do anything racist, that a lot of the "clowns" do wear blackface. As a Temple student living in the city, I could go to the New Years' marches, and not just to the off-season family Mummers events. It was like having a warm conversation with your great-aunt and then suddenly having her drop the N-word. 

The late Joey Vento and company brought a buyeahd name to Phiwwy residents. Let's build something positive instead.

Several years ago, the racism really came to a head. The owner of Gino's (of Rocky fame*), who has always been kind of a Neanderthal, decided to put together a float and marching band dedicated to criticizing President Obama on "illegals". That same year, some hipsters (I say that with love!) from (I think, because I can't find a link?) Spiral Q put a climate justice float and band together. It was upsetting to see the worst of Philadelphia out there. But it was also rull noyce to see a positive message too. Until last year, apparently, the Mummers organization was still fighting to keep "ethnic" groups out of the parade.

Now, I hear that there's going to be a Black Lives Matter protest of the Mummers. I haven't followed the issue closely, being now a Providence resident, and since I want to say something in a timely way, I'm going to admit that I can't get the full picture first. But my overall feeling about this is good. The Mummers, to me at least, is not an inherently racist thing, but it is a tradition--just like Mardis Gras--that has a history associated with it of harsh racial exclusion and racist mockery. I want my role in this, as small as it is, to be as someone who loves what's good about the Mummers but also wants the tradition to grow up. If you're out there reading this, chances are you're not even a Philadelphian, and if you are, you're more likely to be one of my college educated friends who came from elsewhere. It might be hard for you to see why anyone would like this tradition. I want African-American Philadelphians to be completely free to express their fullest anger, unchecked, and be heard. And, so if you find yourself as a hipster white person in Philly this New Years, let this Upper Darby boy ask you to please recognize your responsibility to be an interlocutor. Your life isn't ruined by racism, and so your messaging should be humble and diplomatic. If you find yourself saying the Mummers are just buyeahd and being dismissive of these wooder people, then you're on the wrong track, and you're not helping anyone. Your job as a white person is to support people of color fighting racism, but it's also your job to help take things to a point where maybe some productive conversation can happen.

I love the Mummers. If you're a Mummer, and you don't feel like you're trying to be racist, then maybe you should stand up and say that the racist Mummers should get the f out. Seriously. I know that most people that go to the Mummers parade are just trying to get their fix on cops and firemen in peacock feathers (who wouldn't?). But let's keep the ugliness somewhere else. A'ight?

*By the way, Rocky Balboa has a Brooklyn accent, not a Philadelphia one. Similar, but not exactly the same. Click on wooder to find out what I mean.

1 comment:

  1. Get a sense of humor. I mean come on, it's 2016!