Sunday, January 20, 2008

Window into a colorful past in Wilmington

How fun to see that my friend Catherine Bishir has posted a message on H-Material-Culture, cross-posted at H-Slavery, about a wonderful celebration of the Johnkannaus this past December at Bellamy Mansion in Wilmington.

Earlier this winter, there was a reenactment of a traditional African American festival that prevailed in Wilmington, New Bern, and some other Carolina coastal towns during the 19th century at the Christmas season, at which slaves and later freed people paraded through the streets, went to homes of the wealthy for money, and performed certain dances and songs believed to trace from African and Caribbean traditions. (As you probably know, there was a slave holiday of about a week at Christmas, followed by slave hirings about January 1; Jonkonnu, or John Canoe, was the highlight in certain communities.)

A few years ago, Tryon Palace Historic Sites and Gardens began the revival of the event in New Bern, and it has become quite popular and powerful. This winter, the Bellamy Mansion in Wilmington was the site of the first such revival event in Wilmington, NC.

The scenes of people in costume descending the steps of the big house are probably pretty authentic to that of the antebellum period, as related by accounts of the time. These pictures are pretty exciting.

Slide show.

Harriet Jacobs observed the "Johnkannaus" in Edenton:

Every child rises early on Christmas morning to see the Johnkannaus. Without them, Christmas would be shorn of its greatest attraction. They consist of companies of slaves from the plantations, generally of the lower class. Two athletic men, in calico wrappers, have a net thrown over them, covered with all manner of bright-colored stripes. Cows' tails are fastened to their backs, and their heads are decorated with horns. A box, covered with sheepskin, is called the gumbo box. A dozen beat on this, while other strike triangles and jawbones, to which bands of dancers keep time. For a month previous they are composing songs, which are sung on this occasion. These companies, of a hundred each, turn out early in the morning, and are allowed to go round till twelve o'clock, begging for contributions. Not a door is left unvisited where there is the least chance of obtaining a penny or a glass of rum. They do not drink while they are out, but carry the rum home in jugs, to have a carousal. These Christmas donations frequently amount to twenty or thirty dollars.

Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, ch. 22.

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