A report by Gillian Brockell for The Washington Post.
Edward Warren was a young doctor in the early 1850s when he first witnessed it. Later in life, he described what he saw at Christmastime among the enslaved population at Somerset Place, one of the largest plantations in North Carolina.
On Christmas Day, he wrote, one of the enslaved men dressed up in a costume made of rags, cowbells, “two great oxhorns” affixed to his head and a mask of raccoon skin over his face. Another wore his Sunday best. Others beat drums and played banjos while the two men “entered upon a dance of the most extraordinary character.”
“I was convinced from the first that it was of foreign origin,” he wrote, “based on some festive ceremony which the negroes had inherited from their African ancestors.”
Not exactly. Though Jonkonnu, pronounced “John Canoe,” was a folk custom practiced by enslaved Africans and their descendants, it is likely to have originated in Jamaica in the late 1600s, according to historian Robert E. May, author of “Yuletide in Dixie: Slavery, Christmas, and Southern Memory.” From there, it spread to much of the Caribbean and “really came into its own” in coastal North Carolina in the decades before the Civil War, May told The Washington Post.
“It was a male parade — females sometimes came along but they were never the paraders — and the parades occurred on plantations [and] in towns and cities,”either on Christmas or the day after, May said. He added, “They tended to go from place to place, picking up a bigger crowd as they marched.”
That included going to the homes of their White enslavers, White clergy and other townspeople, where they would “raise a ruckus” until they were given money or gifts to leave. (Close observers of Christmas history may recognize similarities to English peasants’ wassailing and mummer’s nights.)
The revelers played instruments — drums, violins, banjos, tambourines and the like — and dressed in costumes that White observers sometimes described as “grotesque.” Intimidation and mocking of White people was one element of the parade, May said. One of the costumed revelers would carry a whip and threaten children with it; another would dress in a suit and tri-cornered or top hat and act out unflattering depictions of their enslavers.
“What they’re doing is they’re forcing Whites for a short while to immerse themselves in Black culture,” May said. “There was something very satisfying about that.”
If someone didn’t give the requisite coins or gifts, the revelers sang a song whose words amounted to, “Oh this poor guy, he’s so broke he can’t even afford to give us spare change,” May said.
Of course, most of what we know of Jonkonnu — also called Junkanoo, John Kooner and John Kunering — comes from descriptions written by White observers, so their biases must be taken into account. Some noted the “gaiety” and “merriment” of the enslaved.
Harriet Jacobs, who was enslaved in Edenton, N.C., gave a rare account of Jonkonnu from a Black perspective. In her 1861 memoir, “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl,” she wrote, “Every child rises early on Christmas morning to see the Johnkannaus. Without them, Christmas would be shorn of its greatest attraction.”
She described the revelers’ costumes and instruments, then continued: “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.”
Jacobs also described the heart-wrenching occasions when she watched from a distance as her children enjoyed the parade. Jacobs hid in an attic for seven years to escape the sexual harassment of her enslaver; that meant hiding from her own children, too, to avoid detection. On Christmas, she could catch a glimpse of them enjoying the festivities from holes she had made in her “prison,” as she called the attic. (The family was eventually reunited in New Yorkafter she escaped slavery.)
So why would enslavers, who held their captives in literal and figurative chains, who controlled all the weapons, the military and law enforcement, allow a day of revelry, mocking and intimidation?
It wasn’t a spirit of charity, May said. As with wassailing in England, enslavers may have seen it as a “pressure relief valve.”
“The idea is that you have to give people who all year long are humiliated, whipped, bossed around, told what to do, family-separated, sexually exploited — you have to give them some way to vent their frustrations,” he said. “Some way that’s basically harmless, but you need to let them vent.”
Even if White enslavers went along with it, May stressed that Jonkonnu originated in the Black community.
In other areas of the antebellum South where Jonkonnu didn’t exist, enslaved people were still generally given off a few days between Christmas and the new year. They could use this time to rest or visit family; some found it was the best time of year to attempt an escape. For many, this was the only time of year they could feast or just plain party.
Famed abolitionist Frederick Douglass, who had been enslaved in Maryland before escaping at age 20, wrote with disgust about Christmas on plantations, describing how enslavers encouraged drunkenness, even taking bets on who among the enslaved would get the drunkest. This practice, he wrote, “appears to have no other object than to disgust the slaves with their temporary freedom, and to make them as glad to return to their work, as they were to leave it.”
Douglass agreed with the “pressure release valve” theory, writing, “Were the slaveholders to abandon this practice, I have not the slightest doubt it would lead to an immediate insurrection among the slaves. These holidays serve as conductors, or safety-valves, to carry off the rebellious spirit of enslaved humanity.”
By the time the Civil War began, Jonkonnu was already falling out of favor in the Black community, May said. Post-emancipation, Black leaders encouraged African Americans to become “upstanding citizens” who “deserved the vote,” believing that would convince White Americans to let go of their racism. Jonkonnu, with its costumes, wild dancing and panhandling, didn’t fit into that rubric. The last known Jonkonnu celebration in the United States was in Wilmington, N.C., in the late 1880s.
But in the Caribbean, where many of the islands had, and have, Black majorities, it has continued and evolved. In the Bahamas, Junkanoo is a Dec. 26 festival during which teams, now including women, compete for the best costume, dancing and music. Gone are the rags, whips and horns; in their place are elaborate headdresses and colorful tunics decorated with feathers, sequins and glitter.
It’s a “joyous Bahamian celebration,” according to Arlene Nash Ferguson of Nassau’s Junkanoo Museum.