Friday, January 4, 2013

New Year's Day in Philadelphia

I feel distinctly, and uncharacteristically, unable to assemble coherent critical thoughts about the Mummers Parade in Philadelphia. Having lived in this city for five and a half years, I have of course been to see a few of the parades, especially to show out-of-town visitors. The main feature of the parade is that it is rather boring. You hang out on Broad Street, fighting off pretzel vendors but not much in the way of crowds, and wait for a long time. Occasionally, a group of costumed performers amble up the street, set down some cheap-looking sets and props, and do a lackluster little song and dance number easily bested by your average high school marching band. Everything seems a bit ragged and homemade. It doesn't make much of an impression on you, but it's one of those things that make Philadelphia kind of cute in an earnest sort of way.

My experience with the Mummers is a pretty typical one. Let me interrogate that experience a little bit, however, because my engagement is ultimately mediated by some crucial factors. This is going to seem silly, but here's the literal geography of my Mummers experience, a map of me walking from my home to where I viewed the parade:

Philadelphians will look at this map and immediately predict the point I'm about to make. For the rest of the world, here's what this map means: I live in Fitler Square, a small affluent neighborhood in the western half of Center City. My walk down Spruce Street, up 20th, through Rittenhouse Square, and then down Locust takes me through the most famously and visibly wealthy part of the city. The streets I walk on are lined with beautiful old brownstone mansions and expensive apartment buildings. I walk by nearly all of the most noted institutions of high culture in Philadelphia, all built in the 1850–1950 glory days of the city: AVA, Curtis, St. Mark's, the Academy, the Walnut Street shopping district, and the Union League. From my final vantage point I look to my left and see the towering City Hall, and to my right to see the Kimmel Center.

On the other hand, here is the official parade route:
As you can see, the Mummers' walk is rather precisely perpendicular to my own walk. Beginning in the depths of South Philly, the Mummers perform their way a solid three miles up Broad Street to the judging platform by City Hall, before adjourning to the Convention Center for more performances. If nothing else, this explains the rather listless performances up in my neighborhood; the guys have been walking for several miles, and are saving their energy for the performances that matter.

Needless to say, however, the real fault line here is the cultural intersection of these two literal routes. South Philadelphia is the traditional home of blue collar Philadelphia, my own neighborhood the traditional home of white collar. While today members of the Union League sit outside on the balconies of their club house to enjoy the festivities passing by (and indeed, hold fundraisers for the perennially underfunded parade organization), that peaceful intersection belies a long history of cross-class conflict, often still very present. Last year, for example, Philadelphia magazine, which caters mostly to the suburban Main Line crowd and wealthy Rittenhouse dwellers (like me), called for "getting rid" of the Mummers. (As the Naked City blog amusingly put it, "Philly Mag Conundrum: Hates Mummers, Loves White People.") As both an outsider to Philadelphia and as a card-carrying member of the elite, the Mummers Parade is not for me, but aimed at me.

The Philadelphia Mummers Parade is of course just one in a long line of such carnivalesque spectacles, a history I don't need to rehearse here. Susan Davis's excellent history (extracted in American Quarterly if you have JSTOR) gives the context of this particular parade, which originated in rambunctious nineteenth- century Christmas street celebrations corralled by the beginning of the twentieth into more orderly New Year's Day pageants.

Most carnivalesque spectacles depend heavily upon upending various oppositions, from political power to race and gender. The traditional Bakhtinian idea is that in a carnivaleqsue performance, the normal order is reversed. The poor become kings for the day, and masks are worn to disguise true identities. As Davis points out, for the Mummers upending these oppositions has expressed itself since the nineteenth-century in both drag and blackface performances. And this is where yesterday's Mummers Parade got interesting.

I spent New Year's Day at my in-laws in DC, so I was not a spectator this year. But through various social media outlets—and crucially so; as usual the traditional coverage in the newspapers and local TV stations remained silent on the subject of politics—I began to hear about some interesting performances.  First came from Mark Segal, the publisher of the Philadelphia Gay News, and a longtime local activist, writing on his (public) Facebook page:
OK America, the nations largest Drag Parade is now on the street. It's the Mummers parade in Philly, and we are officially in the "Wench divisions." Thousands of drags, mostly non gay, but this year a surprise. I'm honored to be a judge at Conventon Center at 5p, [sic]
So, we have an interesting acknowledgement on the part of the Mummers that there is some sort of relationship between Mummer drag and and gay drag. Thinking somewhat hazily about this, I would see this as part of the mainstreaming of a certain kind of gay activism in Philadelphia over the past few years. Segal, for example, has been involved in creating a senior housing complex oriented towards LGBT people. Anytime you're successfully working with construction and federal funding in this city, you're going to end up involved in the upper echelons of mainstream municipal political power, and Segal is now a regular player in that sort of world, of which obligatory fealty towards Mummers is an annual ritual. And, I guess it can go the other way as well; the Mummers paying a small kind of tribute to the political success of (a certain kind of) gay activism by including Segal, and also, I gather, a small contingent of "actual" drag queens in the parade itself.

The other stories that began trickling my way on Twitter and various blogs was more fraught with unease. There seemed to be one performance that involved fake American Indians stealing jobs from an Asian Indian call center, somehow involving Gangnam Style. More striking, however, was the performance by the Ferko stringband, titled "Bringin' Back Those Minstrel Days." Apologies for the quality of this guy's YouTube video shot off a TV screen, but you get the idea.

Whoa, right? As you'll see in a lot of commentary around this performance, actual blackface was apparently banned starting in the 1960s, although it has cropped up occasionally since then. But if actual blacking up has been rare, the discourse of blackface minstrelsy has nevertheless provided the foundation for the world of the Mummers, just as much as drag. As many scholars argue, the entire enterprise of reversing the "natural order" in the nineteenth-century parades hinged upon creating whiteness out of blackness, of melding together working-class immigrants from Ireland and elsewhere into a position of power by defining themselves against black Americans. Just as the drag performances of the Mummer Wenches deepens the inscription of masculinity into its performers, the blackface performances deepens their whiteness. Today they usually paint their faces any color besides black to avoid the official ban, but the point is the same. One often hears the argument that blackface minstrelsy still lies at the heart of a great deal of popular culture in this country, which I think is mostly true, but in the case of the Mummers Parade, minstrelsy lies even closer to the surface. The Ferko performance simply makes this heritage explicit.

I can't read into the hearts and minds of the Ferko band's intentions, although as Samantha Melamed points out, some of the signs carried by the band were literally copied from a web site called "" And it is not hard to suss out racial context for their performance; simply go to the comments section of any newspaper or community bulletin board having to do with Philadelphia, find an article having to do with a black person, or crime, or schools, or sometimes just the existence of the city itself, and you will find your context. More so than in any other city I have ever lived in, there is a raw, grotesque, openly-racist resentment on the part of some white citizens (frankly, seems to be mostly ex-citizens who now live in South Jersey) of the mostly-black political establishment that is thought to run Philadelphia. Ironically, that attitude puts the Mummers in the reverse of their nineteenth-century position. Blackface is no longer parody of those below themselves on the ladder of political power, but parody of those imagined to be above. Again, I can't read the minds of Ferkos, nor do I know any of them personally, and for all I know the intent of their performance was merely ignorant of history. The context is unavoidable, however.

Needless to say, a lot of people got pissed off, and rightfully so. Samantha Melamed at the City Paper covers the controversy, including a link to some of the original 1960s blackface controversy and a predictable quote from the Ferko people. ("heritage blah blah blah never occurred to us to be offended blah blah blah.") A particular interesting reaction is that of Joey Sweeney at Philebrity, who makes the provocative move of calling upon all of us nouveau Philadelphias (such as myself), the ones who are gentrifying this city, to reject this peculiar heritage. On the other hand, some have seen the inclusion of identifiably-gay drag as evidence of liberal progress; historian Jonathan Zimmerman's piece for the Inquirer sets up a narrative of such progress, in which this year's inclusion of gay drag is matched with the official ban on blackface as "another welcome blow against bigotry." Zimmerman is uncritical (and his history a little vague) but for another queer defense of the mummers, see the poet CA Conrad's writing in response to the Philadelphia magazine attack mentioned above.

What to make of all this? This is where the fast-moving landscape of race, class, and sexuality, pressed down by the weight of history, renders me somewhat speechless. The ease at which some members of the gay community gloss over the blackface issue in favor of some limited kind of notion of "progress" troubles me, but so does my own position as someone who is very much the target of the Mummers tradition, and an outsider to that history. Ideally there would, I think, be some sort of "oppositional spectatorship" as Tavia Nyong'o puts it in his writing on racial kitsch, but as he points out even at its best that kind of oppositionality might not be "overcome its ability to reproduce scapegoating." (388) And in my limited experience in Philadelphia, there has not been such oppositional work; I'm not aware of attempts (please let me know if there have been some!) by African American performers to undermine Mummers blackface through further parody and commentary, and that's quite understandable. It's one thing to curate collections of racial kitsch, but another to be faced with actual living racist kitsch.

We find ourselves mired in this political stasis where on New Year's Day in Philadelphia, the black and white, and the poor and wealthy remain poised to attack one another. It would be one thing were this limited to New Year's Day, but we also have to read these divisions against the myriad other faultlines of the city: the neighborhood battles over gentrification in Point Breeze, the assaults on Asian kids at South Philly High, the labor disputes of the Goldtex project, the continuing defunding (by the state) and privatization (by the city) of the public school system, just to name a few. And the epic minstrel show that is the United States of America continues on.


Julie Leinhauser said...

Being a Mummer myself (member of the Original Trilby String Band) I have to say I found this post very interesting. Although I'm not totally sure that I agree with the parade being aimed at the elite. The Union League certainly makes it seem that way with all of their members on the steps and this being a required "performance point" for the band (it wasn't even a full drill spot, merely playing only). And yes, the Union League does give a fair amount of support to the Philadelphia Mummers Association. However I think if you ask any individual Mummer, they won't say they do it for the white collar or the blue collar, they do it for themselves. More than anything, I got involved this past year because of friends who I view as family. All the string bands are just that kind of an organization.
Although as far as performing, it is much much more fun down in South Philly where the crowds are there having fun out in the streets that when we arrive in the elite sections of Philadelphia.
But between those two places is an even more interesting demographic: the African American part of Broad St. Between deep south Philadelphia and South Street the demographic changes quite a bit. I have to wonder what these people's reaction to Ferko's minstrel performance was. This area being, according to legend, one where Mummers would not perform when black face was banned in the 1960s. They would just walk through in protest.

Anyway, enough rambling about the Mummers. Just wanted to put in my $.02 on the matter.

Joe said...

Great post! the Mummers are certainly controversial and disturbing, but I think that this might be a little healthier than the tensions up here in Boston. Here the neighborhoods are positioned (intentionally) so that those kinds of conflicts are rare. No exposure creates DISTINCTLY different worlds among the different neighborhoods. Also, we have the same genera of trolls who comment on the Boston Globe's pages, but they live in New Hampshire instead of Massachusetts. Perhaps this is wrong headed, but I feel that the kinds of cross-cultural confrontations like the Mummers can actually help to breed tolerance--I mean the mummers are a pretty far cry from something like the Protestant parades through Belfast etc. Again, interesting post!

PMG said...

It's a really good point, Joe, and you're right, one of my favorite things about Philadelphia is precisely those close quarters, and the sense that we're all in this together. We actually just bought a house last week, so I guess I'm in in for the long term!

I find it interesting to compare the segregation of our northeastern cities and those of California, where I'm from. Segregation there was a little different because it felt more hard-wired into the origins of the cities. The phenomenon of white flight didn't occur quite the same way, I think because so much of the state was only just being built post WWII. Which is to say, cities were built from the ground up with racialized neighborhoods that felt, to me at least, more impenetrable, and had forms of conflict that would be harder to imagine on the East Coast. (My childhood example being the Rodney King riots.)

And Julie, thanks for the insight! From a scholarly perspective, one thing missing for me is good ethnographic work from the point of view of the Mummers--I really would genuinely like to know more about what mummery means for them, and what it accomplishes.

Peter said...

I've never been to Philadelphia but I hear great things. I know people that have visited and lived there and they love it!

I'm still not entirely sure what the mummers are. Is someone able to elaborate?

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