Annette John-Hall | A photojournalist shows there's more to Mummers than feathers, wigs and a racist past
I was far from charitable.
Why, I asked him, why would you even consider calling attention to a group that has a reputation for historically excluding African Americans? I mean, aren't those the people who parade up Broad Street in blackface?
I had no interest in seeing the much-ballyhooed Mummers strut, or braving the New Year's Day chill only to watch paraders revel in demeaning depictions at my expense.
But Kennedy wouldn't be an award-winning photojournalist if he wasn't curious about things he knew nothing of. So when boredom and the prospect of a few good photos lured him to the parade, he saw immediately that there was something about the Mummers' homespun nature that connected to his New Orleans roots.
Kennedy, as a member of his high school band, was one of the first African Americans to march in the all-white Mardi Gras parade in 1968.
"I thought, 'This is Mardi Gras,' " he said.
A Mummer named Anthony, "who was flying the flag and doing the strut thing," invited Kennedy to "come on down to Two Street" - a one-mile section of South Philly that stretches from Washington to Mifflin - for the traditional post-parade celebration. "Park under 95," Anthony told him.
"So I parked under 95 and walked down Snyder, and all of a sudden traffic is stopped in the middle of this narrow street with these rowhouses, and people are in the middle of the street doing dance routines, and I'm thinking, 'Whoa!' "
Kennedy knew he had stepped into a cultural treasure trove that, amazingly enough, no book had yet fully chronicled.
Four years later, Kennedy's research has resulted in Life, Liberty and the Mummers (Temple University Press), a beautifully photographed book that lays out Mummers history and shoots down misconceptions about them.
And it tells in pictures why a group of grown men and some women would rehearse for six months straight, dress like wenches and frogs, and spray-paint their Nikes gold just to bring in the New Year.
Mumming is a tale of ethnicity and class that goes back centuries.
As early as 1682, the Quakers and other leaders banned masquerading, stage plays and masks so popular with the lower class at the time - the Irish, Germans and Poles who settled along the Delaware - because they didn't represent a pious, religious life.
That class bias exists today, says Kennedy, who chides the "white-liberal" media for dismissing the Mummers as "a bunch of racist drunks."
They miss the opportunity to tell a more complete story of a deeply rooted and rich tradition.
"That's unfortunate, because the working class have long been neglected in the history of Philly," he added.
Kennedy's subjects were mostly blue-collar union workers. Most of their grandfathers, fathers and uncles were Mummers, and their sons are in the learning stages.
Family and tradition. At the core, that's what the Mummers are all about.
"As an African American, I was envious about the social ties that they have," Kennedy said. "If everybody had that, the city would be less violent because you could tie some of that anger into something, a social outlet. There are few places in the country today where a young male can hang out with other males who can teach you how to be a man."
African American Mummers enjoyed that kind of camaraderie before the Great Depression of the 1930s wiped out the most vibrant clubs.
The most prominent African American ensemble was the Octavius V. Catto brass band, named after the activist who was murdered attempting to win African Americans the right to vote in Pennsylvania.
Today, with a handful of exceptions, Mummers are virtually all white. Until now, the only Mummer black faces I knew about were the ones painted on.
Unfortunately, those still exist.
"Minstrel shows were huge in Philly at the turn of the century," said Kennedy, explaining the origins of blackface Mummery. "There were even ads for minstrel shows in the Philadelphia Tribune. The string bands are a direct descendant of the minstrel shows and vaudeville."
Most of the clubs - but not all - began phasing out blackface in the late 1960s, after African Americans protested.
"I'm not going to say [some] Mummers aren't racist. . . . I'm not here to whitewash their history. My job was to go in with an open mind with no preconceptions, to let it reveal itself to me," Kennedy said.
He admits there were times when he got tired of the black-guy jokes, but "they didn't give me a harder way to go than they gave the Italians or the Polish. They play the game of ethnic dozens all over the place. If you can't take it, you don't need to be around them."
Despite that, he says, "this is probably the most personally rewarding story I've ever done."
Why? "Because people have thanked me for being fair and representing them how they are."
Contact columnist Annette John-Hall at 215-854-4986 or email@example.com. To read her recent work: http://go.philly.com/annette.