Roots of an African-American Christmas

© 1996 BY IRENE SMALLS B.A. M.B.A. All rights reserved. Permission is granted to copy (unmodified) this document in electronic form provided that it is not sold to any company, organization or individual. Author credit must be included. For any use other than that which is expressly given permission must be granted.

Let's go back in time to the Southern Coast of America notably Wilmington, Edenton and Hillsboro, North Carolina. At that time the most popular musical event for the entire community both black and white was the celebration of the Johnkankus, a celebration in honor of an ancient African chief. In celebrating the Johnkankus, the community members were continuing an African folkway but also creating one of the first African-American traditions. A tradition that has lasted in various locations for two hundred and seventy-six years.

Harriet Jacobs noted "Every child rises early on Christmas morning to see the Johnkankus...These companies of a hundred each, turn out early in the morning and are allowed to go around until twelve o'clock (midnight)."

The Johnkankus apparently originated along the West Coast of Africa and was spread to the West Indies and the southern coast of America with the African Diaspora.

Edward Long the author of "History of Jamaica" (London, 1774), II 424-25 noted:

"This dance is probably an honorable memorial of John Conny, a celebrated cabocero at Tres Puntas, in Axim, on the Guiney coast; who flourished about the year 1720. He bore great authority among the Negroes of that district."

And an Englishman who visited Africa in 1725 wrote,

"I visited King Conny in his Castle, who received me very kindly with the usual ceremonies of their country, musick, drums and horns".

Tres Puntas at Axim was a small town in the Northern province of the southwest gold Coast colony off the Gulf of Guiana 38 miles West of Takoradi. Today it is part of the southwestern Ghanaian coastal town of Axim near Prestea at the mouth of the Ankobra River.

It is also believed that the "Johnkankus" was propagated by the Papaws or Popos a tribe from the so called "slave coast" of Africa. From the sources it is not clear which tribal grouping John Conny belonged to. Papaws or Popos were the largest group of Africans exported and enslaved in the early eighteenth century. They were speakers of Ewe and in this language there is a word dzon'ku ' a sorcerer's name for himself and the world -nu meaning man. Put together the words mean a sorcerer man or witch-doctor. Folk etymology then transmogrified the word to John Canoe and its various derivations.

The festival was distinctive for its unusual costumes all made out of rags and tatters, found objects and recycled materials. The Jonkonnu members wore masks that were wildly original made from whatever odds and ends the slaves could find. The African-American slaves were some of the first environmentalist creating the entire festival from garbage and genius. The John Conny was also known for the inventing of songs and original chants, loudly and rhythmically performed to the beat of the drums called gumba (gombe) boxes made from animal skins pulled over a frame.

Other instruments for the celebration were made from animal bones, sticks, reeds, cows' horns and triangles. The basic instruments for a Johnkankus festival in North America were a drum, a reed instrument and a triangle.

The leader of the parade or "Johnkankus (Jonkonnu)" himself was usually male but in Jamaica as early as 1769 there were male and female Connus. In the U.S. only toward the end of the celebration around 1865 in North Carolina was an occasional Jonkonnu female. In a painting by Winslow Homer called "Dressing for the Carnival" from 1877 of the Johnkankus like celebration in the town of Petersburg, Virginia, the Johnkankus is male while those helping him get dressed for the celebration are female.

The John Connu songs were always very inventive, funny and sometimes ended with a sting. Thereby creating one of the earliest protest songs. For Example:

Poor Massa so de say
Down in the heel
So de say
God Almighty bress you
so de say

    Christmas comes but once a year
    Ho rang du rango
    Everyone should have a share
    Ho rang du rango

or the Jamaican counterpart

Massa Buccra lob for see Bullock caper like monkee Dance and Shump and poke him toe Like one humane person, just so

At the end of the parade one or more of their number dressed in his "Sunday go to Meeting clothes" would pass the hat and ask for donations of money or rum.

Oh poor Koners John For me, For me my Lady Give the poor Koners one more cent For me, For me my lady

If a donation was not forthcoming the Koners would sing a song with a definite bite.

Run Jinnie run, I'm going away Going away to come no more This am the poor house I'm going away This am the poor house

The festival has been extensively studied by the researcher John W. Nunley. "Along the coast of West Africa and particularly in Freetown, there are two opposite manners of dressing for the African Masquerades. The precursor of the Johnkankus festival. One consist of fancy paper and cloth strips and beautiful headdress; the other is made of animal parts, plain dark gunney sack material and skin covered horn head pieces. The same stylistic and aesthetic parameters are found in the Jonkonnu of the West Indies, New Orleans and the Carolinas."

In the American south the styles converged for you had a mixture of the two; the grotesque and fearful along with exquisitely beautiful costumed Johnkankus revelers.

Jamaica is where the Jonkonnu has had the longest continuous celebration. Today, the Jonkonnu is still celebrated in Jamaica. Understandably, the Dictionary of Jamaican English has several citations from 1774 (Edward Long, History of Jamaica, and it documents five spellings from various books of the time (1774 John Connu, 1801 Johnny Canoe, 1816 John-Canoe, 1825 Joncanoe, 1826 Jonkanoo and several attempts at folk pronunciation (1943 jancunoo, jankoono, jan-kunnah, 1949 Jan Cunnoo, 1951 Juncoonu)

Recently, The Gombey dancers have been revived in Bermuda for the tourists trade.

"If you see a group of people dancing down a Bermuda street to the sound of drums and whistles and if those dancers are wearing grotesque, colorful costumes, then you may well be witnessing that most elusive of Bermuda Events - The Gombeys"

The Bermuda Gombey is the island's premier folk art. The troupe of anywhere from 10-30 people are traditionally male and sometimes from the same family, even though today there are sometimes a female, who pass the techniques of the Gombey from one generation to the next.

Created during the 17th century by slaves brought to Bermuda from West Africa, the Caribbean and North America, the Gombey dances borrows from many cultures. "Gombey" is derived from an African word meaning rhythm, and the dance itself is part West African, Caribbean and American Indian. The dances have names, and the musical accompaniment is usually a kettle drum, two snare drums, and a fife.

The dance is performed primarily on Christmas and Easter Holidays. It was born originally to be performed only on Boxing Day (December 26) and New Year's Day, when slaves were granted a brief rest, and celebrated their taste of freedom with extensive festivities and dances. Today, Gombey dancers also perform on the Monday after Easter as well as on other unspecified days.

The celebration of the Jonkankus died out among African-Americans around 1865 because of its association with slavery. African-Americans ashamed of their slave past wanted to purge all remembrances of their prior servitude. The Jonkankus was seen as a low class slave tradition and a reminder of slavery. A clear example of the disrepute with which the Johnkankus came to be viewed is that the word "Koners" became synonymous with a (ugly) buffoon or foolish person. Interestingly toward its end the Johnkankus crossed cultures and was continued the by the white community until the early 1900's.

In the article "Do you Remember When" by Henry Bacon McKoy he states, "We went Coonering each year after the festivities of the Christmas Day had gone by. The boys of my neighborhood around the turn of the century engaged in "Coonering" no other time except between Christmas Day and the New Year. A group of five to ten boys would don whatever costume or garment he was able to get. There were sashes and shawls, overcoats and long pants. There were red bandannas, shirts and dresses. Everything had to be old and ill fitting. And then there was always the mask or "Coner" face. Early this year after reading Louis T. Moore's "Stories of the Cape Fear Region" I learned that "Coonering was a custom handed down to us by the Negroes. And that it was supposed to be "Koonering" as a ceremony of John Koner. We didn't know how to spell it. We just did it. And it was fun."

Welcome to remembrances of the African-American past, all to the beat, beat, beat of the gumbe box drum.


Reference Sources:

  1. Irene Smalls, "Irene Jennie and the Xmas Masquerade: The Johnkankus", Little Brown,1996 Author's note
  2. Harriet A. Jacobs, "Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Written by herself," Cambridge Mass. Harvard University Press,Cambridge, Mass. & London England pp. 118-119 277-278 1987
  3. Nancy R. Ping, "Black Musical Activities in Antebellum Wilmington, North Carolina" The Black Perspective in Music 8 (1980) 139-157
  4. Richard Walser, "His Worship the John Kuner" North Carolina Folklore Journal 19 (1971) 160-172
  5. "Tom Cringle's Log by Michael Scott", Everyman's Library #710, J.M. Dent and Sons, London, England 1915, 1969 Dutton, New York pp. 241-245
  6. "Hip Saw & John Canoe" by Fredrick G. Cassidy, American Speech 41 1966 pp.45-51
  7. Black Culture/Black Consciousness" Afro-American Thought from Slavery to Freedom, "The Sacred World of Black Slaves", Lawrence Levine, New York Oxford University Press. pp. 12-13
  8. Henry Bacon McKoy "Do you Remember When Wilmington, N.C. 1905" printed by Keys Printing Co. Greenville, South Carolina 1957 pp. 141-145, Presently Out of Print, Courtesy of the Cape Fear Museum Wilmington, N.C.
  9. Leon Seltzer, Editor Columbia Lippincott Gazetteer of the World, 1952, Columbia University Press, New York, New York p. 75
  10. "Your Bermuda" by George Rushe, p. 70 copy The Bermuda Tourist Bureau
  11. Bermuda Gombey Backgrounder - Bermuda Tourist Bureau Contact: Alex Martinengo
    Porter Novelli
    437 Madison Avenue
    New York, New York 10022
    212 872-8000

  12. Edward Long, The History of Jamaica (London 1774) II 424-25
  13. John Nunley, "The Fancy and the Fierce" Yoruba Masking Traditions of Sierra Leone", African Arts 14 (February 1981) 52-58
  14. John Nunley, "Images and Printed Words in Freetown Masquerades" African Arts 15 (August 1982) 42-46.
  15. Paula Wood & Felix Liddell, "Merry Christmas Baby", A Christmas and Kwanzaa Treasury, Harper Collins, New York 1996

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