Jonkonnu: Reconstructing

music ambience: Jonkonnu drumming

This week in New Bern, North Carolina, historians and local residents are trying to recreate an event called Jonkonnu – a folk festival with roots in the Caribbean and West Africa which disappeared from this part of the world over a century ago. I’m Jim Metzner, and this is the Pulse of the Planet. In the early 1800’s, North Carolinians observed Jonkonnu as an annual day of relative freedom for African-American slaves. Because few slaves were taught to read or write, reconstructing the details of the celebration proved to be special challenge for historians. David Cecelski works with the Southern Oral History Program.

“In much of eastern North Carolina, the slave population was more than half the total population, but that whole side of our history is usually hidden because we don’t have firsthand sources written by African-Americans themselves. What a historian has to do is look at white documents and turn them around. It almost takes an act, I’d say, of intelligent imagination.”

Drawing from these documents, historians were able to piece together a few details Jonkonnu. A first hand account of the celebration written by a North Carolina physician in 1829, provides the best picture of the festival. Historians also examined oral accounts from the children of freed slaves to help fill in the missing information.

“You try to understand human events in 1840 or 1850. There’s always going to be limits to how close you can get to understanding someone’s heart, how they lived, the way they thought, just the fundamentals of life. What we as historians try to do, is, try to get as close to the marrow of their lives as we can.”

Pulse of the Planet is presented by the National Science Foundation. I’m Jim Metzner.

music

Jonkonnu: Reconstructing

A widely celebrated event during the 1800's inspired historians and local residents of eastern North Carolina to reconstruct its spectacle.
Air Date:12/04/2003
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Transcript:

music ambience: Jonkonnu drumming

This week in New Bern, North Carolina, historians and local residents are trying to recreate an event called Jonkonnu - a folk festival with roots in the Caribbean and West Africa which disappeared from this part of the world over a century ago. I'm Jim Metzner, and this is the Pulse of the Planet. In the early 1800's, North Carolinians observed Jonkonnu as an annual day of relative freedom for African-American slaves. Because few slaves were taught to read or write, reconstructing the details of the celebration proved to be special challenge for historians. David Cecelski works with the Southern Oral History Program.

"In much of eastern North Carolina, the slave population was more than half the total population, but that whole side of our history is usually hidden because we don't have firsthand sources written by African-Americans themselves. What a historian has to do is look at white documents and turn them around. It almost takes an act, I'd say, of intelligent imagination."

Drawing from these documents, historians were able to piece together a few details Jonkonnu. A first hand account of the celebration written by a North Carolina physician in 1829, provides the best picture of the festival. Historians also examined oral accounts from the children of freed slaves to help fill in the missing information.

"You try to understand human events in 1840 or 1850. There's always going to be limits to how close you can get to understanding someone's heart, how they lived, the way they thought, just the fundamentals of life. What we as historians try to do, is, try to get as close to the marrow of their lives as we can."

Pulse of the Planet is presented by the National Science Foundation. I'm Jim Metzner.

music