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Happy New Year from Philadelphia's “Drunk Racist Clown Parade”

2014 Mummers Parade. Photo by Brian Lin via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

A comic brigade at the 2014 Mummers Parade. Photo by Brian Lin via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Imagine scores of people festooned in a dizzying array of bright colors, sequins, feathers and face paint, dancing in unison up a city boulevard. They're playing instruments and performing clown routines, poking fun at everything from political controversies to zoo animals to historical events. If they have a spare hand, it's usually holding a beer. Tens of thousands gather to watch the event and join in the fun.

This is not Mardi Gras. It is not Carnival. It is the Mummers Parade, a New Year's Day tradition in Philadelphia that many historians believe to be the longest-running folk festival in the United States.

Performers number in the thousands and spend months developing and rehearsing routines, building costumes and scenery, and perfecting their “strut”, an official dance move that most Philadelphians can at least mimic if asked. They line up at 6am, often in below-freezing temperatures, and prepare for an entire day of strutting and clowning their way up Broad Street, the city's central boulevard.

2010 Mummers Parade. Photo by Brian Lin via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Fancies at the 2009 Mummers Parade with penguin character. Photo by Brian Lin via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

“Day drinking” is a hallmark of the event — ubiquitous on the street and easy to spot on Twitter:

While some parade goers make a point of getting a good night's rest on New Year's Eve, others choose to “go the distance” and simply keep refilling their glasses through the night and into the morning:

With car traffic blocked for miles, people come to the parade by train, bike, and on foot, donning crazy hats and glasses on top of their winter gear, lugging thermoses of wassail and cases of beer. From a distance, it looks like a goofy, unpretentious, all-around good time.

As a child, I was enticed by the Mummers and very much wanted to see them up close. But my dad informally decreed that we would not go to the parade because it was a racist tradition. He had a point.

Like other carnivalesque rituals in the Americas, the Mummers often embody, or at least dress like, a person or thing they are not. But along with mythical creatures and colorful animals, each year some performers—who are almost all white men—present simplistic, cartoon-like depictions of foreign cultures, “wenches” (see below), and Civil War-era minstrel shows. This is the part of the parade that I, like most Philly natives, can't really get down with.

A fancy brigade depicting Native American indians at the 2007 Mummers Parade. Photo by Valkrye131 via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

A fancy brigade depicting Native Americans at the 2007 Mummers Parade. Photo by Valkrye131 via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

The parade's signature song dates back to popular 19th-century folk or “minstrel” shows in which white performers depicted slaves of African origin performing slapstick routines, and playing instruments in plantation-like settings. For many Americans (I'd like to think most, but one can't be sure), minstrelsy is a cringe-inducing symbol of the period.

This aspect of the tradition has deep roots. Driven by Irish, Swedish, and German fraternal organizations (then and now), the parade began as a celebration of working-class immigrant culture and a rejection of classist and racial discrimination that pushed these groups to the social and economic margins of the city in the 19th century. 

It's no surprise that minstrelsy was originally a part of the Mummers’ tradition. After the Civil War, free blacks came to the city seeking work and competed for jobs with poor ethnic minorities like the Irish. One can imagine why these groups might have romanticized the pre-war past at the turn of the century.

A wench brigade at the 2010 Mummer Parade. Photo by Kevin Burkett via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

A wench brigade at the 2010 Mummer Parade. Photo by Kevin Burkett via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

As the parade tradition evolved, some things changed, but not without a fight. In the 1960s, “blackface” paint was officially banned in response to protests by black Philadelphians who argued that the city should not support an event that denigrated its own taxpayers. But old habits die hard—I've been to the last three parades and seen performers wearing something akin to blackface paint at each and every edition, like the man in the photograph at right. In a city that is nearly half African-American and where immigrants from China, Vietnam, the Caribbean, and a range of  East African countries make up a sizable chunk of the population, this does not feel okay.

Social media has made it easier to see exactly how Philadelphians feel about this strange celebration — a parallel tradition has evolved in which fiery online debates over representations of race, gender, and social class at the parade light up local blogs and Twitter feeds. 

This year, one Twitter user called the parade an “ignorant, cringe-inducing display of stereotypes of people of color.” Another tweeted:

Mummers typically justify their continued attachment to these rituals by saying it's “just a joke.” But for many Philadelphians, it's just not funny. In a blistering article on last year's parade, which featured two of the more offensive performances in recent memory, local blogger Joey Sweeney described the parade as “100% backward bullshit, an annual celebration of the white man and his famous burden that has no place in the modern, better iteration of this city.” Readers like Milagros Lopez did not take kindly to Sweeney's diatribe.

“I am a black hispanic female and I do not find any of it offensive,” Lopez responded. “If anything it is silly, inaccurate and a little strange….Let them look like fools. It is only hurting their image and not ours.”

But others felt differently. “You know how upset you are by this article?” wrote Erica Matos. “How targeted and wronged you feel? How misunderstood?…Now, imagine hundreds of people parading these opinions around the streets and rubbing your face in it. That's how people like me, who are of an ethnic minority, feel when we see antics such as these in the Mummers Parade.”

Wench brigade at the 2009 Mummers Parade. Photo by Melody Kramer via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Wench brigade at the 2009 Mummers Parade. Photo by Melody Kramer via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

I find myself siding with Matos, and with Twitter users who criticized local government for supporting parade organization, traffic patrol and clean-up. In a city that is too bankrupt to fully support public schools and transit, and where nearly a quarter of the population lives below the national poverty line, you'd think there would be no funding available for this sort of thing. But you'd be wrong.

Fallen clown at 2014 Mummers Parade. Photo by Carlykbad via Instagram.

Fallen clown at 2014 Mummers Parade. Photo by Carlykbad via Instagram.

In the end, after a few years of witnessing the revelry and excess, I feel about the same as my dad does. Should I reject the tradition full out, as I was raised to do? Maybe.

But I'm torn. The truth is that I love the essence of the event — waking up on New Year's Day to a city transformed into a strange world of wild colors and costumes is a magical thing. Being free to take on an imaginary identity for a day and starting the year off with a fantastical escape from reality, rather than a hungover look at the road ahead, feels like a gift. I just don't like the way the Mummers do it. For 2015, I think the solution will be to start my own tradition. A small costume party at my apartment, with lots of music and dancing. And plenty of selfies for my GV friends around the world.

  • Pingback: Happy New Year from Philadelphia’s “Drunk Racist Clown Parade” | Freedom, Justice, Equality News

  • Tim Delaney

    I don’t know. Honestly I didn’t realize that there was all this social media chatter on the Mummers and racism. Which I get, certainly; usually a few (or more than a few) jackasses do something really stupid. It wouldn’t be a parade without me rolling my eyes at something.

    Still, knowing about these tweets bothers me. My mother’s family is deeply connected with the parade; I myself have marched a few times with the infamous Froggy Carr wench brigade, both as a child and as an adult. It’s been a mostly positive experience. Not too many people can say they’ve roller skated up Broad Street — but I can. And even if I’m not marching myself, I head down to the parade as often as not.

    But I think that there is something more to it than a family tradition or even just a good time. I grew up in Northeast Philadelphia, which was like living in an inner ring suburb where you pay City Wage Tax. The parade injects vitality into the South Philadelphia neighborhoods where my relatives live, something sorely lacking in the Northeast. There’s a passion there born of community, and that is not something that people can just pull out of thin air.

    Dismissing something, of course, can itself be a way of building community. I do recognize the needs of a group to define itself any way it can, even if the means are nasty tweets about people you perceive as racist boors. But I do wish that people would take more positive action.

    Rather than have your own costume party, why not march yourself? It’s not that hard to join (you can contact the Mummers Museum for details). You can join many marchers like myself who try to bring a positive energy to the proceedings, which is the best way to counteract the jackasses. Personally I wish that Spiral Q would start marching again on New Years.

    Admittedly change does come slowly to the parade, but it does come. And ultimately the parade has proven itself open to new people; indeed, the organizers are desperate for new blood. So my suggestion would be that, if you don’t like the parade, try to take it over. It wouldn’t be as hard as you think, and I suspect it would be more rewarding than tweeting your opinion (which, of course, you could still do).

    • David D

      Did you read the article?? These people are not jackasses. Many of these people are racist. That would be like telling people to join a Klan rally. This is the problem of racism. No one wants to call it for what it is. Mainstream news media barely covers this story of racism the way this writer did out of fear of offending whites like you. You say “I grew up in Northeast Philadelphia, which was like living in an inner ring suburb where you pay City Wage Tax” I grew up in Philly and have heard many whites say the same thing. Race had and has a lot to do with that attitude. As the city population became predominately black the attitude was that they were paying city tax to support “those lazy blacks”. That statement defines a white flight mentality when blacks move to close. I remember when whites in that NE Philly area tried to succeed from the city when the first black mayor mayor Goode was elected. So I fully understand why you’re marginalizing the racism of this parade.

      The mummers parade is nothing more than an watered down annual Klan
      rally. I don’t know why they don’t just put white sheets on and call it for
      what it is. They past this tradition of racism and hate down to their
      children. This is a prime example of how racism is past down from one generation to another. The news media in Philly gives them a free pass by ignoring
      the racist tradition of this so call parade because of who they
      target..blacks. If they were trageting a white ethnic group like Jewish
      people this “tradition” would have been shut down long ago. I couldn’t imagine a parade where the city allowed members of the white ethnic population to be mocked.

      • Tim Delaney

        Thanks for reading my response. Just a few observations . . .

        I think it’s generally understood that a racist is, by definition, a jackass.

        The intent of my remark about what growing up in Northeast Philadelphia was like was to illustrate how dull the area is compared to other parts of the city. Surely you’re not dismissing my opinion just because I was born in the Northeast?

        Look, I don’t want to fight. Certainly that’s not why I wrote my response to this piece. I think that, historically, the parade has served to unify the city rather than divide it. I would like to see that continue by having more communities within the city embrace the parade. If they choose not to embrace it, the parade will disappear, and probably fairly quickly.

        But I will say this: the fact that you compare the Mummers parade to a Klan rally suggests to me that you’ve seen neither.

  • Pingback: Daily Mac: 01.02.15 | Reporting from Philadelphia

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