Stu Bykofsky Defends Blackface


Another Mummers Parade has come and gone, leaving those of us with a modicum of common sense and common decency both bewildered and embarrassed (I wrote a piece defending the Mummers a few years ago. I made some fair points, but after what I saw yesterday, I was wrong.)  The Mummers decided to really amp up the racism this year, and the result was embarrassing for the city. But Daily News writer Stu Bykofsky thinks we just lack a sense of humor if we don’t find blackface or mockery of Native Americans funny.

Out there in the twitverse – that’s not a typo – some donkey sees blackface in the Mummers Parade and - kazaam! – as many as nine people on a couple of different “platforms” are finding other forms of “racism” in the parade, drawing insipid conclusions from their aggressive ignorance.

In other words, Stu Bykofsky thinks it’s not only perfectly acceptable in 2013 to have a float called “Bringin’ Back Those Minstrel Days” in a downtown parade in one of America’s largest cities, complete with giant wooden depictions of blackface (seen below), but that those of us who don’t “get it” are ignorant. He continues.

If you’re offended, here’s a buck. Try to buy a sense of humor.

See, here’s the problem with your simple logic, Stu: there is a very hard and fast rule in comedy…if you’re going to say or do something making fun of a race that isn’t your own, IT BETTER BE FUNNY. That’s the social contract that anyone doing comedy has with their audience. You can say whatever you want when it comes to race, but it better be funny or the crowd will probably turn on you and you’re going to look like a total jackass. I’ve seen comedians walk both sides of that line, and it is remarkable to see the people who are good at it pull it off, to the degree that the people they’re making fun of are laughing their heads off. It is an amazing skill, one that very few comics are capable of. And it is cringeworthy when the others can’t make it work, and the crowd turns, and the comic is up there all alone, twisting in the wind because their joke was some idiotic, simple lampooning of race.

In other words, race and culture and class and America’s history of racial and social conflict are all on the table for comedy and satire in the Mummers Parade. All of it. But here is what is truly so offensive about the Mummers: they’re not funny. Mocking call centers in India, then confusing Native Americans with Indians…not funny. Mocking people by posting giant wooden caricatures of blackface…pathetic and simple. Why can’t the clowns be funny? Why can’t a string group as obviously talented as the Ferko’s (Who have finished in the top 5 a whopping 83 times) express themselves creatively without “bringin’ back” to life something the country pretty much agreed was overtly racist over 100 years ago? That doesn’t mean that these groups need to appeal to my personal aesthetic, or even anything close to it, but for the love of God is it too much to ask that they stop trying to appeal to Mississippi rednecks of the 1950s?

And don’t come after me for not appreciating Philly’s history and tradition. I love this city’s history and tradition. I run a freaking website about Philly’s history. But appreciating history doesn’t mean we have to keep repeating it. Blackface was wrong. There’s a reason it stopped being socially acceptable. And if a Mummers troupe in 2013 isn’t creative enough to do a production without incorporating it, then they shouldn’t be in a major parade in one of America’s great cities. It’s really that simple.

If you find blackface funny, or that skit above funny, you are quite simply anti-social. That humor is not funny. It’s simple and it’s lame. If you want to know why blackface isn’t funny, pick up a U.S. history book. If you still want to defend it, Stu, go right ahead. But just be aware that you’re on the other side of that line, the one where no one is laughing. You’re just twisting in the wind, joking about blackface in a room of people who think that you just don’t have a clue.

  • There was no black face in the parade. Just because people say something on Twitter does not make it true. The ban from 1964 is strictly enforced.

  • Rebecca, the photo above of a wooden depiction of blackface was taken at yesterday’s parade. That alone should have caused the Ferko String Band to be disqualified. But on the technicality that they painted their faces in a color other than black (though they painted them in true blackface “style” and did a rendition of the famous blackface film “The Jazz Singer”) they were not only allowed to participate but were rewarded by finishing fifth.

  • mae

    you are not the only one saying this and i just don’t get it… were we watching 2 separate parades? is it because the crews used a dark brown facepaint (see the Rasta number w/guy in facepaint and dreds) so you think it doesn’t count?

  • mae

    you are not the only one saying this and i just don’t get it… were we watching 2 separate parades? is it because the crews used a dark brown facepaint (see the Rasta number w/guy in facepaint and dreds) so you think it doesn’t count?

  • I saw it as a tribute to Al Jolson, the man who spent his life fighting discrimination against African Americans in a era when very few were doing so. I don’t know if we should sanitize every artistic expression to the point where all imitations of certain historical eras or types of music are banned. The signs of “blackface” had white faces. I did not see any black face paint as the other commentator suggests. That being said, if it hurts and offends people then I wouldn’t want it to continue. I do understand your point.

  • I forgot to mention that I believe that in artistic expression, intent is what makes something racist or not. Perhaps we should ask Ferko what their intent was. Also, are any Black people discussing this? Because I think that their opinion here matters a lot more than ours.

  • I did not see any face paint that was dark brown or black and can’t find the performance you mention. I’d have to see it to form an opinion.

  • mae

    right now phl17 has a low res clip of each brigade on their website. the one example (of many) was the OMalley Wench brigade doing ‘Jammin up Broad.’ If you move to about 1 min 8 secs in you will see it quite clearly – the large man front and center in a beanie/dred wig with darkface, he may even be the captain.

  • I agree that the feed on Phl 17 appears that the captain is wearing all brown makeup, but I have the parade saved and I have frozen the picture on his face and taken a photo of it. In this photo it appears he is wearing dark green, dark brown and yellow paints, similar to what the other participants are wearing. The crews didn’t use all brown face paint, rather, the paint matches the colors on the costumes. Ironically, I noticed a little boy who appears to be mixed race or African-American in this very skit. I wonder how his parents feel about it. I’m only speaking for myself here, but I think white people need to leave the judgement to people of color. Even then, not everyone will agree, but I wonder how Jamaican people feel about this skit and how Black people feel about the Ferko segment. This discussion raises many questions about the nature of satire, theater, artistic expression and what role the intent of the participant plays in shaping the perceived outcome.

  • I agree that the feed on Phl 17 appears that the captain is wearing all brown makeup, but I have the parade saved and I have frozen the picture on his face and taken a photo of it. In this photo it appears he is wearing dark green, dark brown and yellow paints, similar to what the other participants are wearing. The crews didn’t use all brown face paint, rather, the paint matches the colors on the costumes. Ironically, I noticed a little boy who appears to be mixed race or African-American in this very skit. I wonder how his parents feel about it. I’m only speaking for myself here, but I think white people need to leave the judgement to people of color. Even then, not everyone will agree, but I wonder how Jamaican people feel about this skit and how Black people feel about the Ferko segment. This discussion raises many questions about the nature of satire, theater, artistic expression and what role the intent of the participant plays in shaping the perceived outcome.

  • tommummer

    the “Giant wooden depiction of Blackface” looks like it has Blue eyes. Hardly a trait of Black people.

  • Please take a look at my article on this topic: http://haddon.patch.com/blog_posts/they-were-all-in-blackface