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Jonkonnu: Black Performance in White Space

by Elijah Gaddis (2014)

“Koo, Koo, or Actor-Boy” by Isaac Mendes Belisario, from "The Atlantic Slave Trade and Slave Life in the Americas," compiled by J. Handler and M. Tuite, and sponsored by the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities and the University of Virginia Library

On December 27, 1911 Maggie Washington of Wilmington, North Carolina, went to jail dressed in men’s clothing. The newspaper account the next morning listed her as “colored, of unsavory reputation” and a denizen of the “notorious alley across the street” from the city’s marketplace. Those descriptions are key, because the space she inhabited that holiday night a century ago played a large role in her arrest. Frank George, the arresting officer, brought Washington in because “she was so far from her base of operations,” and so in direct violation of the strict laws governing the movement of African Americans in a town and region that had rapidly and violently conquered Black rule.1 Maggie Washington found herself in prison, dressed in outlandish garb and bearing the ignominy of prominent mention in the local papers not because of engagement in some shadowy occupation. Rather, her arrest, fine, and social condemnation all came because she was performing a folk tradition, one with a long history connecting North Carolina, the Caribbean, Africa, and Europe. Before the turn of the 20th century, Jonkonnu had become an important tradition among African Americans in North Carolina and a remarkable spectacle for the white inhabitants of plantations and cities that witnessed it year after year at Christmas time. By turns celebrated and scorned, reviled and revived, Jonkonnu has remained throughout its history a complex performance of African American identity, bringing empowerment and inviting spectacle and ridicule. Its long history in North Carolina reveals the complexities of African American performance traditions: traditions that incorporate song, dance, dress, and belief from a variety of cultures all connected across the Atlantic by the traffic in enslaved persons. The practice of Jonkonnu illustrates both continuity and change, the two foundational principles of performance traditions anchored in historical practice and modified in enacted memory.

Jonkonnu began as a tradition among enslaved people in 17th century colonial Jamaica. The name, which was often modified to any number of variations by uncomprehending Anglo-Americans, probably comes from the Ewe language.2 It is a performance difficult to describe, and one almost never documented except by observers mostly ignorant of its significance to the performers themselves. Stemming from the complex hybridity of the Caribbean world, it is impossible to ascertain what parts of Jonkonnu come from African practices, which from European, and which were inventions wrought by some mingling of the two. Brought to the Carolinas in the minds and bodies of slaves after “hardening” in the Caribbean, the practice of Jonkonnu was clearly established by the antebellum period when accounts began appearing throughout the areas of North Carolina with the most concentrated slave populations. These early accounts paint a vivid picture of a once-yearly custom, undertaken around the Christmas holidays when work was generally slack. This "John O’Cooner" was led by what most observers called a “rag man,” one clad “in a costume of rags, so arranged that one end of each hangs loose and dangles” and wearing a mask, horns, and skins from various animals to cover his face and nearly all exposed skin.3 He was accompanied by the so-called “fancy man,” one dressed in the best European style clothes. Following these leaders was an assortment of men playing various drums (the “gumba box” being the most commonly reported) and trailing these performers, “a motley crowd of all ages, dressed in their ordinary working clothes.”4 The procession, at least in plantation accounts, would proceed to the doorstep of all the white males on the plantation (the master, sons, tutors, overseer) where the fancy man would demand and receive some sort of favor, usually money.

“'De John Coonahs comin’!' And there come, sure enough!” The Ladies' Home Journal, December 1891, Vol. IX, No. 1, p. 5.

The few accounts we have are relatively uniform in the way that this performance proceeded. Less clear are the motives behind Jonkonnu. Anne Cameron, writing to her husband from the seat of their plantation lands in Orange County, tells of a performance made of enslaved people from miles around and undertaken nominally to please the white owners of the plantation, but endured by her as a means of exercising subtle control over Christmas behavior. “We had more musicians than we could accommodate. I was quite sick all day, but … because I knew all the 'people' who were here were full of mischief, I tried to endure it, but for once got heartily tired of music. I felt rewarded however by knowing it was the most peaceful Christmas was ever had.”5 Another account, this one from Dr. Edward Warren, a physician recounting his early days practicing medicine in Eastern North Carolina during the early 1850s, detailed a performance of Jonkonnu on the Somerset plantation in remote Washington County. Warren was more perplexed, uncomprehending of what he was witnessing, but attributing it to customs brought from the “uncivilized… jungles of the dark continent.”6 From the perspective of the plantation class, Jonkonnu was African American performance in service of Anglo-American entertainment and desire for order. These early observers recognized Jonkonnu as part of a “primitive” world, one whose annual enactment would only serve to solidify their continued dominance over the space of the plantation for the rest of the year.

At the same time, Jonkonnu was being practiced in the growing cities of North Carolina. Almost from its inception in locatable written sources, Jonkonnu was already seen as a fading relic of old times. During the 1854 holiday season the Wilmington Journal “found a very general impression” that the Jonkonnu performers of their time “were not equal to the ‘Kooners’ of olden times.”7 A year later the same paper proclaimed the death of Jonkonnu: “‘John Kuner’ is dead… he was worn out and used up.”8 Less tired were the African Americans of New Bern; that town’s Daily Progress reported in 1858 that “the 'kooners' were out; the streets were densely thronged with Negroes.”9 This is particularly intriguing instance for what it suggests about the spatial politics at play in urban Jonkonnu performances. The Kooners out on the streets “mixed up with…two hundred negroes who had been hired to work” from Charleston.10 Whether these “negroes” were slaves from New Bern, some of the large number of freed people of color inhabiting New Bern, or a mixture of both is uncertain.11 Either way, this short description is suggestive of a performance that filled the streets of the city and mixed African Americans of different statuses and locations together. Jonkonnu brought to the city had the potential to be disruptive and to allow the black majority to rule over the city streets, even if only temporarily.

Annual reports on Jonkonnu continued every year, even finding a prominent place in Civil War newspapers otherwise crowded with news of battles and casualties. These wartime accounts only solidified a growing tendency in newspaper reports to view Jonkonnu through the nostalgia of a past where whites could view themselves as possessors of supreme and absolute power. The immediate and constant threat to that entrenched power during the war years led to ever greater criticism of Jonkonnu. An 1862 article in Wilmington detailing the smaller than usual Jonkonnu performance remarked sarcastically that the only people enjoying the holiday were the “‘poor oppressed Africans.’”12 Mentions in the immediate post-war years were few, with most commenters looking on Jonkonnu as a thing of the past. In 1870, one Wilmington editorial condemned the practice in its current iterations, not because it had changed or somehow degraded, but because of the changing nature of patriarchal privilege. The anonymous author reports, “then it was a pleasure to give to them and encourage them in all of their pleasures; now we feel it to be a tax and a burden.”13 The author’s use of a collective “we” proved accurate; in years immediately following, Jonkonnu would be banned from the streets of Wilmington by order of its mayor. It was not simply the white power structure of the city that opposed Jonkonnu as “some of the colored churches also... resolved against” Jonkonnu and supported its banning in 1875.14 That same year saw some of the nostalgic condemnation that had been a hallmark of discourse around Jonkonnu for decades, with the Wilmington Star remarking upon it as “one of the time-honored institutions of Christmas which had degenerated into the greatest kind of nuisance.”15 Needless to say, the Star was among the supporters of the ban. But there was also a curious, and new, development to the story of Jonkonnu. An article reprinted from the Richmond Whig, saw “John O’Kooner” as “the last recognizable form” of mumming and Morris dancing that their “forefathers brought over with them from England.”16

Though this form of cultural appropriation became commonplace, it was only prong of an attack on the performance which eventually led to its death that had been so often proclaimed. The increasing regulation from the mayor and other city officials, put the legal validity of the tradition in question. Its banning in 1875 and revival 3 years later marked a pattern of tighter regulation of Jonkonnu .No more would troupes of Jonkonnu performers be allowed to roam the streets at will, and African Americans would never again be allowed to perform Jonkonnu without the regulating gaze of white authority. Perhaps paradoxically given the simultaneous embrace among white elites, this increasing regulation often signaled condemnation as well. White newspapermen (nominally speaking for the citizens of the town) would hail Jonkonnu as a joyful celebration of years past only to quickly reject it as a sign of Black degradation. Just a few years into the 1880s then, papers in Wilmington and across the state were marking Jonkonnu as a “denigrated” relic best left to the past. One paper in Pittsboro leveled the first and most explicit form of a critique that would become commonplace in the immediate years before the dawn of the 20th century. The Chatham Record of December 28, 1882 criticized the lack of Jonkonnu performance as stemming from Black political involvement: “the emancipated darkey, now one of the sovereign voters of this Republic would feel degraded at dancing as a John Kooner!”17 The same sorts of arguments prevailed elsewhere; in New Bern, in Raleigh, and especially in Wilmington. By the turn of the century, just as whites in Wilmington were violently overthrowing democratically elected Black politicians, Jonkonnu too was becoming a touchstone of white culture. Capitalizing on its supposed English origins, the practice was quickly taken up by white men and boys. So when Maggie Washington was arrested early in the 20th century, she was doubly guilty: her violation was both of the spatial regulations made law in Wilmington and of the unwritten laws reserving Jonkonnu for white men and boys. Though there were periodic attempts reported among white populations throughout the state in the next decades, this was the nadir of Jonkonnu. One later commenter interpreted this as “the long lost spirit of former days [that] could not be restored by the white race.”18

It was preserved, however incidentally, in a few private histories of post-coup Wilmington written many years later. One of these histories, written by Henry Bacon McCoy, describes the practice he and his friends called “Coonering:” “…we did not sing and we had no particular program to follow. We did not try to say or do anything funny.”19 He follows up by suggesting that he and his friends practiced this bland form of Jonkonnu because “my older brother had done it… my father had gone ‘Coonering’ before me, and they appeared to have been pleased with it and had fun.” But it was not preserved amongst African Americans, at least not as recorded in written record or living memory. Perhaps it persisted as a secretive tradition, this most public of performances driven even past the spatial margins on which it had persisted for a generation. More likely though is that it was maintained, as it had been from its earliest translation to a continental American idiom, in the memories of individuals and groups.

A modern-day performer recreates the Jonkonnu ceremony at Somerset Plantation, Washington County. From The Way We Lived in North Carolina by the University of North Carolina Press, and the North Carolina Office of Archives and History.

The first stirrings of life after this prolonged absence came in the late 1990s. By the turn of the 21st century, the appeal of Jonkonnu was far different. The town of New Bern particularly had developed historical tourism as its main industry and pluralist calls for diverse celebration were part of the business model for the town’s main employer, Tryon Palace. The management at Tryon Palace, in need of programs on African American history in the region and town, latched on to Jonkonnu as a New Bern tradition and, increasingly, a way to connect to the majority African American population of the town.20 The process of research, costuming, and song selection changed the tradition yet again. Because assigned to research songs and create costumes were skilled in reconstructing time periods far removed from Jonkonnu’s original context, the costumes they made in those first years are a curious mix of the horned masks, animal skins, and brightly colored rags that mark the celebration in the Caribbean, and the simple tow cloth shirts, linen pants, and roughshod shoes of late Colonial period slaves. The songs likewise play to the strength of one of these earliest researchers, a musicologist well-versed in maritime songs sung throughout the Atlantic. In the years since, these and the other songs, costumes, and traditions that these early employees identified, modified, or created, have formed a vocabulary of performance that Tryon Palace still adheres to.

In the first year of its performance at Tryon Palace, 2001, the original staff behind the research and development of the project scrambled to find African American participants, both from among the employees and in the broader community. They were mostly successful — though that first year featured a rag man carefully disguised so as not to reveal his race — and gradually more and more African Americans from New Bern began, once again to perform Jonkonnu every year. Among the earliest participants were men and women from the generation that had struggled for the passage of Civil Rights legislation. Perhaps intentionally, they began to link Jonkonnu to those struggles and to the ongoing struggle for equality in a town that has nearly always had an African American majority, but out of which arose an industry that celebrated almost exclusively Anglo-American history. In the years since then, Jonkonnu has been run partially as an historical recreation, and partially as a means of outreach and engagement with the African American community in New Bern. The revived Jonkonnu, too, leaves many pieces of history out. There are historical accounts it doesn’t utilize, songs that are perhaps more accurate, and Caribbean antecedents that it doesn’t pay enough attention to. But still, it remains vital because it is a way for African Americans to not only remember, but to enact long histories of migration and rootedness, despair and triumph.21

Notes

1. Wilmington Morning Star, December 28, 1911, 5.

2. Frederic Gomes Cassidy. Jamaica Talk: 300 Years of the English Language in Jamaica (Kingston: West Indies Press, 2007 [1971]), 259.

3. Anne Cameron to Paul Cameron, 8 January 1848 in the Cameron Family Papers #133, Southern Historical Collection, Louis Round Wilson Special Collections Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.; Edward Warren, A Doctor’s Experience in Three Continents (Baltimore: Cushings and Bailey, 1885), 201.

4. Warren, 201.

5. Anne Cameron to Paul Cameron, 8 January 1848.

6. Warren, 200.

7. Wilmington Journal, December 29, 1854, 2.

8. Wilmington Journal, December 28, 1855, 2.

9. New Bern Daily Progress, December 28, 1858, 3.

10. ibid.

11. On free people of color in New Bern, see Catherine Bishir's Crafting Lives (UNC Press, 2013.)

12. Wilmington Journal, January 2, 1862, 4.

13. Wilmington Journal, December 30, 1870, 2.

14. Wilmington Daily Review, December 27, 1875, 1.

15. Wilmington Star, December 28, 1875, 1.

16. Wilmington Morning Star, December 30, 1875, 3.

17. The Chatham Record, December 28, 1882, 3.

18. Moore, Louis T. Stories Old and New of the Cape Fear Region (Wilmington, NC: 1956), 78.

19. McCoy Wilmington, Henry Bacon. NC: Do you remember when (Greenville, SC: 1957), 143.

20. Tryon Palace Commission Meeting Minutes, 29 (2000), 25-33.

21. The preceding narrative is based primarily on a series of oral histories of both current and former Tryon Palace employees conducted by the author in March and April, 2014.