Over Jack Cohen’s 45 years as a Mummer, he’s seen the Mummers Parade undergo a whole host of changes, and this year is no different.
Associated with an amalgamation of European cultures dating to the 17th century, the parade is a hallmark of Philadelphia’s New Year’s celebrations, a symbol of masquerade and Philadelphia’s cheeky spirit since it was first inaugurated by the city in 1901. But like most other institutions, it’s had to weather the pandemic and reckon with past and present systemic racism and discrimination.
“Everybody recognizes that we have a lot of work to do,” Cohen said. He believes these changes are for the better.
The Mummers Parade has a checkered past of costumes and acts crossing boundaries into racism, antisemitism and transphobia. In 1964, the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Philadelphia denounced blackface at the parade. The Philadelphia NAACP at the time filed a petition in court against blackface use, JCRC of Greater Philadelphia Director Jason Holtzman said.
In 2016, the Anti-Defamation League Philadelphia wrote a letter to the Philadelphia Mummers String Band Association, the Mummers parent organization, in response to continued bigotry carried out by a small minority of club members.
“We also urged the Mummers Association to reject bigotry and set some common-sense policies, including screening for hateful content and educating members about bias,” ADL Philadelphia Interim Regional Director Robin Burstein said.
That same year, parade organizers initiated sensitivity training for the Mummers.
Opening a dialogue among Mummers on cultural sensitivity was helpful, Holtzman said. In 2018, the Quaker City String Band approached JCRC about wanting to perform a parody of “Fiddler on the Roof” for its parade act. JCRC consulted on appropriate costumes and phrases the club could or couldn’t use.
“Even having to admit that they wanted to be culturally sensitive, and having them admit that they’re a bit ignorant on these issues … that’s a win in and of itself,” Holtzman said.
However, in 2020, in lieu of a parade, a small group of Mummers created a Facebook page organizing a protest against Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney, who canceled the Broad Street celebration due to the pandemic. The Facebook page featured images of the Star of David and cartoon frogs bearing resemblance to Pepe the Frog, a meme used by white supremacist Richard Spencer. The ADL condemned the Facebook page, and Mummers leadership distanced themselves from the protest.
For the 2022 parade, sensitivity training for all Mummers is mandatory by the city. According to Philadelphia Parks and Recreation officials, this year’s training consisted of sessions on cultural appropriation, rules of satire and LGBTQ cultural competence — all from the 2016 training — in addition to an added bias awareness training and requirement to have all themes for the parade pre-approved by the city.
According to Cohen — the president of the association’s Fancy division and Golden Sunrise club — Mummers have been receptive to the training. He organized a viewing of the training videos with Golden Sunrise at its South Philly clubhouse.
“There’s not been any pushback, which is what I expected,” Cohen said. “This is one of the ways that we educate ourselves. So it’s not a bad thing — we never look at it as a bad thing.”
He said acts of bigotry are conducted by only a vast minority of Mummers.
Cohen considered Golden Sunrise to be diverse compared to other Mummers clubs. Most of the members are women — for most of its history, only men were allowed to participate in the parade. The club board has a handful of Jews and people of color as well, he said.
Golden Sunrise has an open-door policy, when it comes to new members, Cohen said, and not just because the club touts a diverse demographic and openness to change. It’s necessary to the club’s survival.
“Whether they’re a Mummer club or whether they’re a bowling league, people have had trouble attracting new members,” Cohen said.
Golden Sunrise is part of the Mummers’ Fancy category, one of four in the parade. The club has been the only one in its category since 2015. In the 1990s, the Mummers String Band Association was composed of 27 clubs; it now consists of 14 clubs and 10,000 members, Cohen said.
COVID hasn’t helped attendance either. This year’s parade, complete with masking, is scaled back from 40 acts to 25.
Cohen has noticed more Philadelphia transplants and younger families taking interest in the parade this year, however. Among the new performers is a group of Black drummers, a decision that elicited skepticism from some Mummers, Cohen said. But it’s perhaps emblematic of the future of the parade.
“I thought, you know … they’re not really Mummers, but that didn’t matter … It was to showcase what they wanted to showcase,” Cohen said. “And isn’t that what it’s about — celebrating the New Year and not if you have too many feathers on your costume?”
[email protected]; 215-832-0741