The Daily Southerner
History came to life at a black history celebration Wednesday afternoon at Princeville Elementary School.
The sounds of singing, drumming and the shaking of maracas filled the school cafeteria as the Tryon Palace Jonkonnu Players shared an African tradition dating back to colonial times. The Players did call-and-response songs that got students singing and dancing to the beat of the music.
“They made things come alive,” said C. Rudolph Knight, president of the Perry-Weston Institute, co-sponsor of Wednesday’s celebration, along with the W.A. Pattillo Alumni Association. “The children saw a piece of their history that perhaps was never taught to them…I think that group just got their attention. I bet they won’t forget that black history month program.”
Jonkonnu is a festival with roots in Caribbean, West African, and English traditions, originally celebrated in the U.S. by African Americans in the 19th century.
The annual celebrations gave slaves a brief chance to break free from the mental and physical labors of their everyday life and to go from house to house singing and dancing, even shaking hands with their white masters.
Traditionally, revelers celebrated by singing and dancing to the beats of a drum called a gumba box. The dancers paraded from house to house and collected coins—usually from white slave-owners.
At the end of the performance, a costumed ragman—the leader of the revelers—shook hands with the slaves’ master.
Shmonica Wallace, Jonkonnu dancer, said seeing the tradition firsthand might give the students a different perspective of their ancestors’ experiences.
“We’re still able to bring back that tradition of a time of happiness for them [the enslaved,]” Wallace said. “You don’t get to see things like this much.”
The Players’ performance included a welcoming call-and-response song “Gum-bay-o,” “Come Along, Moses,” a song about Harriet Tubman and her transportation of slaves through the Underground Railroad, “Oh, the Winter” about the end of a successful harvest season, and “Come On Out, Throw a Coin In My Old Tin Cup. “ Haron Beatty played the role of “fancy man” wearing a suit and top hap with a tin cup in hand. Beattty said the cup represents the “giving of coins and money” to the Jonkonnu dancers by the white masters, in keeping with tradition.
African slaves in Jamaica were the first to celebrate Jonkonnu during the colonial days. When Africans were sold as slaves and transported to the eastern United States, they brought the Jonkonnu tradition along with them.
“You gotta have energy in order to do this dance,” said Sharon Bryant, with a laugh, at the end of the performance. Bryant is the African American outreach coordinator for Tryon Palace. The students didn’t have any trouble keeping up with the rhythm of the dancers, and some adults even joined in the dancing.
“I had a lot of fun,” said Knight.
The mood was jubilant during the entire program, from the beat of the Jonkonnu Players’ drums to the singing of “Kum Ba Yah” and “We Got the Whole World in Our Hands” by the school’s diversity chorus. The colorful African attire worn by members of the school’s diversity committee added to the upbeat atmosphere.