Mummers and "Ebonics"
by Jah Free I
Every New Year's Eve when I buy the Philadelphia Daily News, I immediately throw away the special wrap-around section on the Mummers. I join the legions of Black and Brown folks in the city who avoid everything associated with Philadelphia's Mummers Day Parade, religiously held every New Year's Day.
In case you didn't know, every little white ethnic neighborhood in Philadelphia participates in this bizarre spectacle that can only be described as a cross between the Mardi Gras Parade and a minstrel show.
From South Philly, Fishtown, Kensington, and other neighborhoods they come, dressed like neon peacocks, strutting up South Broad Street towards city hall. In 'de good ol' days they all wore blackface, but this is not so popular now. However, these so-called "string bands" still specialize in old minstrel songs, with the hallowed "O Dem Golden Slippers" as their theme. They strut not to pay tribute to long-lost cultural traditions, but to publicly indulge themselves in a "wet, epic debauchery" that ultimately leads, we now know, to private sex orgies*.
During the so-called "Ebonics" Debate**, commentators had a field day denouncing what was being attempted in Oakland -- teaching Ebonics (aka Black English) in public schools. Now from way out in left field, comes the Philadelphia perspective, provided by silver-spoon columnist W. Russell Gore Byers***. Given my natural dislike of mummery, I surprised myself by reading his column titled "Some Mummeries of early Ebonics."
The lyrics of "O Dem Golden Slippers", long forgotten by those drunken New Years Day mobs called Mummers, were actually written in Ebonics, Byers proudly tells us!
"Oh, my golden slippers am laid away,
Kase I don't 'spect to wear 'em
'Til my weddin day,
And my long tale'd coat,
Dat I loved so well,
I will wear up in de chariot in de morn....
Oh dem golden slippers!
Oh, dem golden slippers
Golden slippers I'se gwine wear
In bekase day look so neat."
According to Byers, through the years this has evolved into:
Da de dah da da
Dah de dah da dah
Da de da dah dah da dah da dah
O dem golden slippers
Golden slippers I'se gwine to wear
To walk de golden street.
This is what Black folks in Philadelphia have to put up with every year! What a way to bring in the new year: a bunch of drunks making fun of us, and our culture. More on this later, but first, let's hear how much this white man reveres this song, which was written by James A. Bland, a Black man, in the 1870s.
"You might say Golden Slippers has become the national anthem of both the Mummers Parade and Ebonica. You won't believe this, but it has gone international. When celebrating New Year's in Cancun, Mexico, with my family, as soon as the ball in the nightclub dropped at midnight, we were blessed with blaring loudspeakers brining us Trilby [string band] playing Golden Slippers. In Cancun!
"Imagine the thrill for a bunch of Philadelphians so far from home. None of us are much on the dance floor, but no one in the nightclub could believe the struttin' that went on. And then, as they do here at home, everyone was joining in."
Byers then goes on to give a Negro history lesson of this man, who couldn't make it in the United States as a minstrel because he was Black. You may already know that 99 44/100 of the vaudeville blackface performers were white men. Byers tells us that James A. Bland moved to England, where he wrote 700 songs, amongst them "Carry Me Back to Old Virginny", and was billed as "the greatest Ethiopian song write of the day," and counted the Prince of Wales, later King Edward VIII, as "a loyal fan."
"Yes, he used Ebonics, but not as an official language. It was merely his dialect for expressing love, loss, passion, sorrow and friendship.
"The Prince of Wales, then and now, would clearly say Ebonics is a bastardization of the King's English. And it is. But so is the Southern "Y'all come back, y'hear."
"As isolated dialects, Ebonics, Southern accents and Long Island Lock-jaw are all just fine. They remind us of our differences as we all, in our own ways, destroy the King's English. But let's leave it to the Mummers who make up their own rules anyway to use Ebonics as an official language."
You know, this is all very sad. I am embarrassed because of this shocking lack of respect to Afrikan people everywhere, and the absolute lack of any opposition to this organized slander. First of all, anytime I see a vaudeville act, and the Mummers are indeed talentless vaudeville performers, I think of the minstrel as one of the earliest forms of cultural banditry. Like it or not, these white folks have not contributed one single bit of culture to the nation they call The Melting Pot. Their "high culture" continues to be classical music. Everything else they call "their own" from country and western to the minstrels to rock and roll to gospel choirs, is actually a creation of the experience of black people on these shores. As far as the Afrikan genius is concerned, we as a people have evolved our culture substantially since the days white folks raided the plantations for their culture. White folks however, are as Bro. Del Jones says, nothing but Culture Bandits. In his book Culture Bandits Vol. 1, Jones explains how they subvert our culture to continue to subjugate us.
Meanwhile, everything we leave behind, they adopt and the next thing you know, the original Black genius is forgotten, and they write themselves into HisStory books as the original man. And so it was that Uncle Tom's afternoon song became the Minstrel Show, which became Vaudeville, which was used as the basis for the first the motion picture industry's entertainment of the masses at the beginning of the 20th century, and later radio. By the time television arrived in the late 1940s, they were STILL doing the same tired old vaudeville routines. An interesting documentary on this will probably be repeated during Afrikan History Month on HBO, "Mo Better Funny," a look at the struggles of black comedians in the 20th century. It is really strange seeing black folks forced to wear shoe polish on their faces: a copy of a copy that ain't the real thing.
As for "Mummeries of Early Ebonics", this column is a cheap attempt to get a laugh from those poor whites whose grasp of the english language is laughable, at best. Those of 'em who can read will be giggling hysterically as they stagger down Broad Street mumbling "Da de dah da da, Dah de dah da dah." Those government employees in Oakland (a.k.a. "teachers) can add as many layers of bureaucracy as they want in an attempt to get the King's English spoken by Black students, but they'll never stamp out the Afrikan genius that has for previous generations made ours linguistic evolutions (a.k.a. "slang") the chosen language of "The Melting Pot." And now rap music has become another one of our essential, and "untouchable" cultural arts. Non-Afrikans must stand on the side-lines as an enthusiastic generation creates a culture that can't be ignored, and a NEW language to go with it. "Ebonics?" Nah, it's Afrikan genius, and no law, rule or regulation will ever stamp it out.
As for the Mummers, they ought to look to Europe for some songs to sing, maybe strut down Broad street singing an opera or something. Minstrels, String Bands, Rock Bands, Vanilla Ice, Snow, what's the difference? As Culture Bandits, they are an insult to Afrikans everywhere.
* Read the "Shocking Details in Mummers Sex Sting", where one of their sex rings was FINALLY exposed.
** History of the Ebonics Debate Controversy
*** Mr. Byers met his demise when he drove his Mercedes Benz in the middle of the night to a local convenience store to get some Haagen Daas ice cream, and was tragically murdered.
This column was originally written about the 2001 Mummers Day parade, and was updated to include noted events.
SisMarpessa wrote 501 Days Ago (neutral)0http://www.myfoxphilly.com/dpp/news/local_news/video%3A-philadelphia-mummers-brawl-caught-on-tape-010212 - Imagine if this were Black/brown folks, it would be the lead-in for GMA, Today, and every other national news show that features riotous crowds wilding out!0 points