Log In

Reset Password

Opinion: Mummers get sensitivity training

When I was a kid growing up in Summit Hill, our New Year’s Day traditions included watching the daylong Mummers Parade from Philadelphia, the three-hour telecast of the Rose Bowl Parade from Pasadena, California, and several football games, most notably the Cotton Bowl followed by the Rose and Orange bowls.

We were especially fond of the string bands in the Mummers Parade, and we got a big kick out of some of the comedy skits put on by Mummers who specialized in this entertainment.

Being isolated from diversity and racial issues in the nearly all-white Panther Valley of my youth, the fact that some of these skits relied on white performers portraying African American caricatures and stereotypes never registered on me that this was wrong.

After all, I had attended charity-sponsored minstrel shows at my local high school where the interlocutors (masters of ceremonies) included a school board member and one of my junior high school teachers. Several well-known and well-respected members of our business community were among those who dressed up in blackface greasepaint and performed racial jokes and skits although they weren’t viewed as racial at the time. The standing-room only crowd roared its approval with frequent belly laughs and enthusiastic applause.

We didn’t know it back then in the late-1940s and early-1950s, but we apparently needed sensitivity training, too.

The minstrel shows are long gone, and the movers-and-shakers of the Panther Valley community watch their p’s and q’s when it comes to racially insensitive activities and public comments.

The Mummers Parade, however, has persisted, and its racial insensitivity is legendary. As recently as 2020, two mummers who dressed in blackface caused Philadelphia officials and critics to confront Mummers organizers to demand an end to these incidents.

Community and organizational leaders have blamed Mummers organizers for offensive skits that have included racist, transphobic, homophobic and sexist stereotypes.

Last year, Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney, a former Mummer, threatened to end the parade unless “meaningful reforms” are made. That helped bring about the requirement that all participants undergo sensitivity training. The city began offering such training in 2016 after the chorus of complaints grew, but this year Mummers leaders must provide proof that all participants received the training and that they acknowledge the event’s code of conduct.

For many of us who grew up with the Mummers Parade, it’s a uniquely Pennsylvania tradition. Some of us got up before dawn to travel to the City of Brotherly Love, braved the cold and wind of unpredictable New Year’s Day weather and watched the thousands of marchers parade down Broad Street. Millions of others were content to watch the festivities from the warmth and comfort of their living rooms.

The word “Mummer” itself is odd. As a kid, I thought it had something to do with “mummies.” I later learned that the word can be traced to ancient Greece, derived from Momus, “the personification of satire and mockery.” It’s also found in an old English word, “Mommer,” which relates to miming, masking and frolicking.

The Mummers Parade has been around since 1901, when Philadelphia officially embraced it. Upward of 15,000 participate in the parade as marchers, along with a legion of support volunteers who make uniforms and do other required tasks.

The parade is divided into four groups - comic, fancy, fancy brigade and string band. The comic groups lead the parade. Dressed in humorous costumes, they dance to recordings such as the Mummers unofficial theme song “Golden Slippers.” Each year, they have a theme to parody. The fancy division, whose members are decked out in brightly colored costumes, uses small floats and live music to accompany the performances.

The string bands feature performers in themed costumes and give well-orchestrated performances. The largest category with the biggest crews involves the fancy brigades. They give breathtaking performances before heading to the Convention Center to perform at a ticketed show and where their performances are judged.

It will be interesting to see whether “Golden Slippers” will be condemned to the racist trash bin. The lyrics include “Oh, dem golden slippers, golden slippers I’m gwine to wear, because dey look so neat.”

As along with many changing views, the enjoyment of attending or watching the Mummers Parade is now tempered by the realization that its depictions, once taken for granted and viewed with amusement, were not only insensitive but, in many cases, mean-spirited. The more sanitized memories of my youth contrast starkly with those to whom the Mummers Parade has become an outmoded and offensive celebration.

In a city where former Mayor Frank Rizzo, singer Kate Smith, explorer Christopher Columbus and other icons are now viewed with negativity, I wonder whether the Mummers Parade might soon be added to the list.

By Bruce Frassinelli | tneditor@tnonline.com

The foregoing opinions do not necessarily reflect the views of the Editorial Board or Times News LLC.