Revelers Revive the African-American Holiday of Jonkonnu

John Roach
for National Geographic News
December 16, 2005
For a few nights each December, revelers dressed in furs and rags lend a
festive air to New Bern, North Carolina, as they celebrate the African-
American holiday of Jonkonnu.

Jonkonnu is a festival with roots in Caribbean, West African, and English traditions, originally celebrated in the U.S. by African Americans in the 19th century.

Traditionally, revelers celebrated by singing and dancing to the beats of a drum called a gumba box. The dancers paraded from house to house and collected coins—usually from white slave-owners.

At the end of the performance, a costumed ragman—the leader of the revelers—shook hands with the slaves' master.

"That might not seem significant in the 21st century, but it was very significant within slave-owning society," said Simon Spalding, a musician and historian who re-created Jonkonnu for the annual Christmas celebrations in New Bern.

"I think it functioned as a sort of safety valve to let enslaved people of the 19th century let off a little steam," he added.

New Bern's celebration takes place at Tryon Palace, the first permanent capitol building of the North Carolina colony.

The original building burned in 1798. Today the replica rebuilt on the site serves as an educational center to teach visitors about colonial North Carolina.

Re-created Celebration

Spalding spearheaded the re-creation of Jonkonnu when he managed Tryon Palace's living history programs from 1998 to 2003.

He wanted the Christmas program to reflect the entire population of colonial New Bern, which was about half African-American.

"I think to really interpret history you have to look for [things relevant to] all the people living in the area," he said. "And here's this festival that stands out as a significant part of the local African-American holiday tradition."

Sharon Bryant coordinates African-American outreach for Tryon Palace and oversees the Jonkonnu celebration today.

She said the re-creation demonstrates how early African Americans celebrated Christmas after the long harvest season.

"The people singing and dancing worked very hard in the harvest season in the field doing work that made the master money," she said. "The question would be: What did the Africans do to celebrate?"

Unbeknownst to most slave owners, many of the verses in Jonkonnu songs poked fun at the master and his family.

Oblivious or not, the owners seemed not to mind. Spalding said historic records show that slave-owners sometimes helped pay for Jonkonnu regalia.

The festival got its start in New Bern in the early 1800s, likely by slaves brought to North Carolina from Jamaica. The celebration continued for about 40 years after the Emancipation Proclamation freed the slaves in 1863.

According to Spalding, the demise of Jonkonnu in the U.S. is linked to the rise of so-called Jim Crow laws in the 1890s, which mandated segregation and removed African-American political representatives from power.

"That's not a political climate that really encourages African Americans to get out and have a wild festival where they may break a few rules and conventions," Spalding said.

Blended Traditions

To re-create Jonkonnu, Spalding turned to the few written accounts of the festival, along with a collection of African-American songs from New Bern in the 1860s, and other sources.

He worked closely with Braima Moiwai, a Durham, North Carolina, musician who was born in Sierra Leone.

Sierra Leone's annual harvest festival, called Kome, shares similarities with Jonkonnu, according to Moiwai.

Spalding noted that many British-owned slaves who were sent to the Caribbean came from West Africa. Jonkonnu celebrations are still held today in Jamaica, he added.

"We were trying to put it together out of little threads of historical evidence and combining it with living tradition from Sierra Leone and North Carolina," Spalding said.

The result is a Jonkonnu celebration that brings together the community of New Bern.

Bryant said that in addition to re-creating Jonkonnu at Tryon Palace, volunteers also perform the dances at local churches and schools.

"It gives [others] a feel for what it's all about, so they can understand what Jonkonnu meant and represented," she said.

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