Saturday, December 15, 2012

Jonkonnu in antebellum North Carolina

 rag man
 The "rag man" in a Jonkonnu reenactment at Bellamy Mansion in Wilmington, North Carolina. (Photo by Preservation NC. More about the photograph)

In antebellum North Carolina, Christmas season was the time for an African American celebration found almost nowhere else in North America, but widespread through the islands of the Caribbean. Variously called Jonkonnu, Johnkannaus, John Coonah, or John Canoe, the custom was described in the slave community of Jamaica in the late eighteenth century where it was thought to have been of African origin. Although the details often changed from place to place, Jonkonnu usually involved several African American men who dressed in costumes made of rags and animal skins with grotesque masks and horns. Sometimes one of their number wore his best clothes instead. They danced wildly, often playing musical instruments and singing. In towns, the Jonkonnu men went from house to house while on plantations they performed at the homes of masters, overseers, and other white people. They expected to be rewarded with gifts of money or liquor. Jonkonnu dancers were often accompanied by crowds of men and women who cheered them on while taking no direct part in the performance.

Jonkonnu obviously represented a time of release and enjoyment for slaves from the drudgery of their day–to–day work. Some historians believe that it may also have been a time when the constraints of the slave system were loosened in other ways. On plantations in North Carolina slaves of all sorts had access to their masters in ways that they seldom had during the year. The Jonkonnu performers and their accompanying crowd usually came right up to their master’s house, a privilege usually denied to all but house servants. After the performance, the master would often speak to the performers and shake hands with them, another departure from usual practice. Jonkonnu continued in North Carolina after emancipation, at least in Wilmington, where it was observed as late as 1880. A version of it also seems to have been adopted by whites in the late nineteenth century. In the end, however, it may have been too closely tied to the slave system in which it arose to have survived long after freedom.


As Christmas approaches once again, we recall the traditions of antebellum
times in Wilmington.

Bernhard Thuersam, Director
Cape Fear Historical Institute
"Documenting Cape Fear People, Places and History"

"Jonkonnu" or "John Kunering" at Christmas
Cape Fear Historical Instutute Papers

“The John Kuners were a chief attraction of the Christmas
season since colonial times.”
Dr. James Sprunt

An old Christmas tradition of Wilmington called “John Kunering” is
still remembered, with one similar in Edenton referred to as
“John Canoeing.” This was a tradition practiced mainly by black slaves,
a custom that would find noisy and gaily-dressed processions “singing strange tunes accompanied by banjo, accordian, tamborine and other instruments.” Some of the participants would dress as women, and they festooned themselves with shreds of cloth sewn to their daily attire.  

In Wilmington, the “John Kuners” would dance throughout the town to
the rhythmic chants of:

“Hah! Low! Here we go!
Hah! Low! Here we go!
Hah! Low! Here we go!  Kuners come from Denby!”

“With the rattles of bones, the blowing of cow’s horns, and the tinkling of tambourines, the singing slaves, grotesque in their “Kuner” costumes, would halt whenever an appreciative crowd gathered. Strips of brightly colored cloth sewn to their clothes fluttered gaily as the John Kuners danced merrily. 

They were bedecked in horned masks, beards, staring eyes
and enormous noses with grinning mouths.
All were men, but some would dress as women.
After a few songs and dancing, the Kuners would approach the spectators with hat extended to collect a monetary reward for the antics. The Kuners would then depart for another crowd to dance
and sing for and the usual reward”(Johnson).

Slave Harriet Brent Jacobs described the custom (Cashman, p.51):

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