Revelers Revive the African-American Holiday of Jonkonnu

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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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