Now that it’s solidly the ~holiday~ season, I am ready for all things celebratory. In the early 1800s, the holidays were a bit different, as customs from across the globe melded into what we have today.
In the Carolinas and across the new nation, enslaved people developed their own cultural identities, rooted in the traditions of their ancestral homes in Africa, with Caribbean and European themes mixed in. These traditions are a map of the triangular trade of the Transatlantic Slave Trade, by which African people were trafficked to the Caribbean and then they, or their descendants, were moved to the American colonies (or later states). In North Carolina, for a brief period starting around 1820, enslaved people began celebrating a Christmastime event called Jonkonnu or John Canoe (and many other various spellings and alternative names). The holiday probably came from similar celebrations in Jamaica and other parts of the Caribbean, where it’s stilled celebrated.
"French Set-Girls" and “Queen, or ‘Maam’ of the Set-Girls”. Lithographs by Jamaican artist Isaac Mendes Belisario, 1837-8. These depict Jamaican celebrations of Jonkonnu, but many of the characters are referenced in historical and contemporary North American celebrations.
Jonkonnu celebrations consisted of dressing in bright clothes, drumming, chanting, and other music played on traditional homemade instruments, and parading through the streets of town or from house to house. During Jonkonnu, the traditional power structures were flipped, with the Jonkonnu performers singing about the white plantation owner and requesting gifts. By the end of the 19th century, celebrations of Jonkonnu died out as Jim Crow laws increased and public celebrations by Black citizens were suppressed. In the last 30 years, the holiday was revived by New Bern (NC) locals and reenactors at Tryon Palace.
Lunch & Learn Jonkonnu.
Next Thursday, reenactors Sharon Bryant and Keith McClease from Tryon Palace will join the Charlotte Museum of History to share the history of Jonkonnu in New Bern. The virtual program will also include a sneak peak of Tryon’s Jonkonnu celebrations, coming up later this month! Click the image above or visit charlottemuseum.org/events to learn more.
See ya next week!
The Charlotte Museum of History
About The Charlotte Museum of History
The Charlotte Museum of History exists to save and share the Charlotte region’s history, helping create a better understanding of the past and inspiring dialogue about the future. The museum is the steward of the 1774 Hezekiah Alexander Rock House and homesite, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is the oldest home in Mecklenburg County. Visit charlottemuseum.org and follow the museum on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. The museum is an independent 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.
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“We have to do with the past only as we can make it useful to the present and the future.” – Frederick Douglass