Oxford AASC: Jon Kannoe

Jon Kannoe

By: Peter Hinks
Source:
 Encyclopedia of African American History, 1619-1895: From the Colonial Period to the Age of Frederick Douglass What is This?

Jon Kannoe

Beginning in the first quarter of the nineteenth century, Jon Kannoe was a raucous ritual of inversion celebrated by slaves at Christmastime in the eastern towns of coastal North Carolina, especially Wilmington and Edenton. The exact provenance of the practice is uncertain, but various commentators link it with ceremonies from West African regions and the English practice of lavishly costumed men performing in mummery at Christmastime.

The first probable recorded descriptions of Jon Kannoe or Jonkonnu (there are a variety of spellings of the term) are from Jamaica in the late seventeenth century, with the first certain account coming from Edward Long in his 1774 History of Jamaica. The ritual thrived in the British West Indies, especially Jamaica, Nassau, and the Bahamas, and somehow—the exact route is uncertain—traveled to coastal North Carolina, most likely by way of slaves moving from the British West Indies to eastern North Carolina during the mid-eighteenth century. The first recorded instance of Jon Kannoe in North Carolina was in 1824 at Somerset Plantation near Edenton. It was celebrated consistently throughout the antebellum era but began to fade in popularity among African Americans in the decades after 1865.

The loud celebrations usually began on Christmas Eve and continued until the burning in two of the traditional Yule log, generally within the first few days of the New Year. The immediate participants in the festivities were exclusively male and commonly wore wild, garish costumes and masks made from rags, animal skins, and snouts. Dangling from this extravagant apparel were dried bones, rattles, and bells that helped fill the neighborhood traversed by the celebrants with exciting noise. Lending even more sound was the loud singing and the banging of pans and “gumba drums” that accompanied the athletic dancing and lively procession of revelers as they wound their way through the town's streets, stopping regularly in front of houses to perform for coins, treats, and liquor. On no other occasion during the year were slaves allowed such license for congregation and for rambling in the streets or for boldly approaching white individuals and their houses. Songs were an important part of the ritual, and sometimes they barely masked ridicule of poorer whites who could not treat the revelers at their door:

Poor massa, so dey say;
Down in de heel, so dey say;
Got no money, so dey say;
Not one shillin, so dey say;
God A'mighty bress you, so dey say.

While the celebrations were generally free of any overt subversive threat, the expanded mobility and social license granted slaves could occasionally lead to explosive situations. Near Edenton in 1824 one group of black celebrants confronted some white men, resulting in one white man's murder. A pronounced fear among whites of slave insurrection in coastal North Carolina heightened dramatically in 1830 as the Christmas holidays approached. After the bitter and violent removal of politically and professionally prominent blacks from their offices and homes in Wilmington by well-organized and well-armed white men in 1898, Jon Kannoe was appropriated over the ensuing years by white men who then became its exclusive seasonal practitioners.

See also Caribbean; Dance; Festivals; Food; Jamaica; and Music.

Bibliography

  • Fenn, Elizabeth A. ‘A Perfect Equality Seemed to Reign’: Slave Society and Jonkonnu. North Carolina Historical Review 65.2 (April 1988): 127–153.
  • Hinks, Peter P. To Awaken My Afflicted Brethren: David Walker and the Problem of Antebellum Slave Resistance. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1997.
  • Jacobs, Harriet. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl: Contexts and Criticism. Edited by Nellie Y. McKay and Frances Smith Foster. New York: Norton, 2001.
  • Reid, Ira D. A. The John Canoe Festival. Phylon 3.4 (Fourth Quarter, 1942): 349–370.
  • Stuckey, Sterling. Slave Culture: Nationalist Theory and the Foundations of Black America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.
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