Last week, we recommended attending the Mummers Parade as a celebration of city living, and to witness its changing face and efforts toward more diversity. But after the parade, one Citizen stalwart emailed to tell us the Mummers still had a ways to go.
“Despite some halfhearted attempts at cultural inclusion, the parade went above and beyond this year with the black and brown face, and plenty of signs mocking #BlackLivesMatter,” she wrote. “It was embarrassing and gross. It was bro-heavy and not family friendly. We left quickly.”
The media fallout conformed to the same storyline. The mocking of Caitlyn Jenner. The video of the Mummer shouting gay slurs. The attack by a group of Mummers on a gay man walking his dog. Twitter blew up, with everyone from Margaret Cho to then still Mayor-elect Jim Kenney lambasting these public acts of backwardness. Uh-oh, we thought…Same ol’ Philly. Had we erred in recommending it?
Maybe. But, upon closer inspection, this could also be true: That this is what change feels like. This year, the parade added the Philadelphia Division, which included an African American step team, a Puerto Rican Bomba and Plena music group, and a Mexican-American dance collective. The Inquirer story after the parade reported that most Mummers were welcoming of the influx of new faces, but that there were tensions.
“At times interactions grew heated, with critics calling the event racist and diehard Mummers railing against perceived political correctness,” the paper reported.
In retrospect, that’s quite natural, isn’t it? How naive of us to think that the addition of an African American step team and a handful of diverse troupes wouldn’t engender at least some identity group backlash. Tensions always seem to escalate when once closed civic traditions start to welcome new voices and faces.
Like Nixon, the ardent anti-Communist establishing relations with China, Jimmy From The Block is uniquely situated to move a Mummer or a labor leader or a purely transactional politician away from narrow self-interest and toward the common good.
The key is what happens next. And what happened in the aftermath of the parade was telling—and heartening. On Sunday, the Mummers issued a press release, announcing that the Mummer who had engaged in hate speech had been banned from Mummerdom: “As of this time, he is no longer considered a Mummer.”
The Finnegan New Year Brigade pledged to reach out to the LGBTQ community to offer “its services to help with a LBGT fundraiser or equality awareness, and to learn more about LGBT concerns.” And “on the matter of the Mummer Comic tradition of satire and poking fun at pop culture,” the press release read, “we will continue dialogue with Mummers about sensitivity and with non-Mummers about the Mummer tradition of humor and what can be accepted as freedom of expression and what is over the line.”
Different groups trying to live together is what cities are all about, and that dynamic often plays out in complicated and messy ways. Remember, the Mummers came to be in the early 20th Century because white residents were violently rioting against one another—and others—on New Year’s Eve. The parade was an effort to civilize and unify warring groups. Even then, the Mummer’s Parade was a social experiment. The more things change, the more they remain the same.
In some ways, before he was even inaugurated, the Mummer controversy was the dawning of the Jim Kenney era. Much has been written about how Kenney is a type of bridge between old and new Philadelphia: a one-time Mummer turned political progressive, a Two Streeter who was for gay marriage before it was cool and who announces that “Black lives matter” at his inauguration. In the Mummer imbroglio stands Kenney’s central challenge: Can we get beyond the finger-pointing rhetoric of identity politics and be one city?
Kenney didn’t run on a set of policies so much as on his personal narrative: Like Obama in ’08, he posited his story arc as the change we need. That doesn’t guarantee he’ll be able to get things done, but it does give him a shot. Because, like Nixon, the ardent anti-Communist establishing relations with China, Jimmy From The Block is uniquely situated to move a Mummer or a labor leader or a purely transactional politician away from narrow self-interest and toward the common good. Kennedy’s tweet on Friday responding to the Caitlyn Jenner sign and skit—“It was bad. Hurtful to many Philadelphians. Our Trans Citizens do not deserve this type of satire/insult. #BeRespectful”—was not only dead-on, it was a harbinger of what he’ll have to do as Mayor: Speak truth to some of his friends, while simultaneously allaying their fear of change.
Michael Nutter was silent about those whose actions detracted from the Mummer fun on New Year’s Day, but can you imagine how his critique would have gone over? “Yeah, I got your respect right here, Buppie.” But Jimmy is harder to dismiss. The way the Mummers controversy has played out this year, with the Mummers now working with the LGBTQ community, is not only representative of Kenney’s own political evolution…it’s an opportunity for a seminal moment. Five days ago, we feared that news reports could lead only to the inescapable conclusion that we’re the same old polarized Philadelphia. Now the idea that it’s everyone’s parade—and everyone’s city—feels resurgent.
Header photo: @FinneganNYB via Twitter