Oxford AASC: Festivals


Throughout English colonial North America, African American slaves participated in rituals and celebrations that stitched together black communities while preserving a folk life rooted in African traditions. Eighteenth-century festivals often coincided with, and at least superficially mirrored, events staged by European colonists. Blacks sometimes invested their own cultural traditions so thoroughly into white holidays that festivals became known as distinct African American events.

African American festivals are much easier to document and describe in the North, where the smaller slave population was dispersed among the European population, than in the South, where larger numbers of slaves were concentrated on plantations. This disparity may reflect both the need and the ability of southern slaves to conceal their collective activities from masters. Despite the severe constraints that typified slavery everywhere, slaves up and down the coast of the North American mainland managed to find means to express their collective identity in joyous gatherings. Blacks, through participation in festive community gatherings, adapted to conditions of oppression, affirmed community, and resisted cultural domination.


The two best-documented African American festivals in New England are Negro Election Day and Negro Training Day. Negro Election Day can reliably be dated to the mid-eighteenth century, while records of Negro Training Day date to the post-Revolution era, with earlier origins likely. Both of these gatherings corresponded to similarly named events on New England's white ceremonial calendar. Like whites, New England's black population elected community leaders on Election Day and drilled as militias on Training Day.

During the mid-eighteenth century New England's slave population was increasingly drawn directly from Africa rather than from the West Indies. The kings and governors selected by local slaves often claimed a direct connection with Africa; a white owner of means could also be important, helping the leader to secube financing for the inaugural dinner and other festivities. Titles conferred substantive authority in some New England slave communities; kings and governors sometimes had authority to punish fellow slaves for minor crimes and to settle quarrels within the community. The festivities associated with Negro Election Day included dancing, gambling, and the consumption of special foods and drinks, such as gingerbread and herbal beer. The copious consumption and flamboyance of the festivities set the celebration apart from the repetitive labor and meager provisions during the rest of the year. While masters may have approved of this opportunity for release, slaves valued the chance to express themselves in a fashion that kept alive aspects of the African past and permitted them to recognize leading members of their own African American communities.

Training Day, with its organized military drill, presented a potentially greater challenge to white authority. But the satiric nature of the black militias, including the motley uniforms worn by marchers, took the edge off the ritual. Whites found amusement in the performance of blacks, while blacks probably found pleasure in mocking the pretensions of white militias.

In the mid-Atlantic colonies Pinkster was the most distinctive celebration on the annual calendar of slaves. Popular in New York's Hudson Valley, the New York City area, and parts of New Jersey, this holiday represented an instance of blacks transforming a European celebration into an African American one. By the mid-1700s Pinkster, originated by Dutch colonists celebrating Pentecost in the late spring, had become an opportunity for slaves to assert ethnic ties among themselves despite their usual isolation from one another in separate white households containing only a few slaves each.

Like Negro Election Day, Pinkster revolved in part around the selection of a communal leader, or Pinkster “king.” Also like the leaders of Negro Election Day in New England, the Pinkster king would dress in an array of fancy clothing, some of it borrowed from whites. The carnival atmosphere of the holiday, which could last as long as a week, included music, drumming, African dancing, colorful clothing, and the selling and consuming of foods that blacks sold from temporary stalls. As with New England's festivals, whites and Indians attended the Pinkster events. Thus, the Pinkster celebration reenacted the process by which slaves in the North simultaneously rooted themselves in the African past and formed new identities in a culturally mixed landscape.


Particular African American festivals in the South during the colonial and early national period are harder to identify than in the North. Scholars of slave life in the Chesapeake region emphasize the ways in which blacks inscribed their culture on the white calendar and seized on times when they were less closely supervised to develop communal forms of recreation. Thus, Christmas, the fall harvest, Protestant revivals, Sabbath, and nighttime all provided opportunities for an African American festive culture to emerge. Moreover, blacks were both spectators and participants in two of the most popular forms of colonial Chesapeake recreation: horse races and cockfights.

Tradition and opportunism could work in tandem. Events such as harvests were time-honored occasions for celebration for people of English and West African descent in the Chesapeake and elsewhere in the South. Thus, widely attended, joyful feasts at harvest time had meaning for both whites and blacks. One scholar suggests that harvest celebrations allowed slaves to synthesize various elements of African and American culture. Ring ceremonies, perhaps the most important West Central African ritual incorporated into African American life, may have provided an opportunity during harvest time to pay tribute to deities, African or Christian. Night, a time often used for festivities in Africa, was also a time of relative freedom for slaves to come together. Similarly, even under the oppressive conditions of slavery, slaves continued to observe funereal customs that showed proper respect for their dead. Wakes and funerals may have provided slaves in early America occasions to emphasize solidarity with one another and symbolically reaffirm ties to their African homelands.


“The Bamboula,” an example of the dances performed on Sundays in New Orleans's Congo Square. Benjamin Latrobe visited New Orleans in 1819 and described these celebrations in his journal, expressing his amazement at seeing hundreds of unsupervised slaves gathered to dance.

New York Public Library, General Research Division, Astor, Lenox, and Tilden Foundations; from The Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine, 1886.

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Christian holidays also provided opportunities for slaves to socialize with one another as well as to fraternize in the “mixt multitude” of people drinking, gaming, and enjoying a break from the workaday routines of agricultural life. The revival meetings that sometimes followed the fall harvest provided further instances of blacks celebrating with whites. As they did at nights and on Sundays, slaves availed themselves of the chance during holidays such as Christmas, Easter, and Whitsuntide (which marks the Pentecost) to visit friends and relatives. Slaves punctuated such gatherings with African musical and dance styles, emphasizing multiple rhythm schemes and improvisation that contrasted markedly with European styles. Even though Christianity penetrated the slave community slowly during most of the eighteenth century, the Christian calendar permitted the continuance and elaboration of informal and ritual forms of African sociability. Elaborate dances performed on Sundays in nineteenth-century New Orleans's Congo Square further indicate how southern blacks found ways to integrate their own festive culture into the calendar.

Slaves in eastern North Carolina grafted the festival of Jonkonu—also known as Jon Kannoe and Kunering—onto the Christmas season, establishing a fascinating tradition of obscured origins. During Jonkonu, male slaves paraded wearing masks and striking costumes of dangling rags and danced to vibrant African musical rhythms. Jonkonu brought a carnivalesque atmosphere to the week between Christmas and New Year, with blacks taking greater liberties to visit one another and to solicit money from local whites, not only masters but poorer whites as well. The forwardness of the celebrants, as well as the African musical and visual vocabulary of the events, may have felt menacing to some whites. Nonetheless, wealthier whites seemed to enjoy the opportunity to patronize black revelers. Thus, like festivals in the eighteenth-century North, Jonkonu provided some release from daily exploitation. Slaves seized the opportunity to exercise their cultural creativity, expressing their commitment to their distinct heritage. White masters found it necessary, even advantageous, to accommodate such public expressions.

Clear evidence of the Jonkonu celebrations in North Carolina dates only to the 1820s, with evidence from the British West Indies extending back to the eighteenth century and forward to the twentieth century. The holiday was most likely of West African origin, with one scholar suggesting the festival's source as specifically Yoruba. It is unclear why Jonkonu did not spread more widely to other southern regions of the United States. There were, no doubt, other festive gatherings and customs that remained hidden from the view of southern whites during the colonial and early national periods.

Meanings and Transitions

Although the volume of evidence from the North and the South is not commensurate with the African American populations of each region, basic similarities existed. The persistence of African foodways, the importance of dance, the significance of proper burials, and the combinations of multiple colors and textures in clothing to express fashion sensibilities distinct from those of whites are all phenomenon that transcend region while marking the persistence of African traditions in various North American contexts. Festivals sometimes featured symbolic role reversals and allowed slaves to make demands, however fleeting, on their masters. If African Americans could not control the calendar or the agricultural work cycle, they could at least invest life with meanings and customs of their own. Moreover, festivals dramatized the paradoxes of cultural creativity under conditions of stark inequality. Masters permitted and even encouraged certain festivals, hoping to mitigate some of the frustrations their slaves inevitably felt about their condition. Yet slaves managed to claim cultural space and affirm communal solidarity in a fashion that made day-to-day resistance possible and more direct assertion of rights plausible under the right conditions. More than likely, slaves secretly conducted religious observances of African origin, including the ring shout and Islamic prayer, well into the nineteenth century.

The early nineteenth century marked a transition in black festive life, in part reflecting the diverging fate of African Americans in the North and the South. Gradual emancipation in the North, along with the virtual cessation of northern slave importation from Africa after the American Revolution, changed the ways that leading African Americans viewed the needs of their community. Public meetings, especially parades, marked important civic milestones, such as the official end of American participation in the international slave trade. For over two decades starting in 1808, Boston blacks dressed in their finest clothes and staged a march on 14 July to commemorate the abolition of the international slave trade. Such occasions also gave African Americans an opportunity to demonstrate that free blacks wished to take their place as orderly citizens of the new Republic. Meanwhile, whites took an increasingly dim view of any form of black celebration. As African Americans acquired the status of freed people, racial mixing in festivals controlled by African Americans appeared to be a greater social menace; in 1811 officials in Albany, New York, banned Pinkster altogether. Black parades also became the subject of white scorn and harassment, as new racial boundaries replaced older distinctions between slaves and free persons.

In the South, where not even gradual abolition took place, festive life reflected both change and continuity. Nineteenth-century slave communities had fewer members born or raised in Africa, while the number of slaves who practiced some form of Christianity increased, without becoming dominant. African Americans invested Christianity with their own meanings, in some sense reinventing the religion in ways that were compatible with the rituals and cosmologies of Africa. Moreover, the Christian immersion of baptism resonated with West Central African conceptions of rivers and water with ancestors. A river baptism might bring dozens of slaves to a southern riverside; such a spiritual celebration was also a social one, drawing slaves of a variety of ethnicities together.

The ecstasy and possession that blacks and whites exhibited at revivals is another example of how African expressions of religiosity made their mark on festive southern gatherings. As African American festivals became nested into the now deeply embedded Christian calendar of their masters, ostensibly Christian festivities became African in subtle but significant ways. Meanwhile, even as particular African ethnicities became more attenuated in the South, African Americans continued to gather secretly to inscribe their own understanding, placing themselves in the universe in ways that were spiritually uplifting and that brought together peoples of diverse African origins.

See also American Revolution; Baptism; Cemeteries and Burials; Clothing; Dance; Food; Gradual Emancipation; Identity; Jon Kannoe; Louisiana; Music; Native Americans and African Americans; Negro Election Day; Negro Training Day; New York City; Pinkster; Religion; Slave Trade and Spirituality.


  • Berlin, Ira. Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 1998.
  • Gomez, Michael A. Exchanging Our Country Marks: The Transformation of African Identities in the Colonial and Antebellum South. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998.
  • Morgan, Philip D. Slave Counterpoint: Black Culture in the Eighteenth-Century Chesapeake and Lowcountry. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998.
  • Piersen, William D. Black Yankees: The Development of an AfroAmerican Subculture in Eighteenth-Century New England. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1988.
  • Sobel, Mechal. The World They Made Together: Black and White Values in Eighteenth-Century Virginia. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1987.
  • Stuckey, Sterling. Slave Culture: Nationalist Theory and the Foundations of Black America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.
  • White, Shane, and Graham White. Stylin': African American Expressive Culture from Its Beginnings to the Zoot Suit. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1998.
  • Williams-Myers, A. J. Long Hammering: Essays on the Forging of an African American Presence in the Hudson River Valley to the Early Twentieth Century. Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press, 1994.

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