Have you heard of the strange African American holiday celebration called Johnkankus? There aren’t many places in the world where the tradition survived, but if you look hard, you just might find it. With origins along the West Coast of African, this tradition is mostly found in the Caribbean. Today the tradition includes a street parade with dance and mime-style performances.
The History of Johnkankus
Although there are no written records, Johnkankus is believed to have come from West African nations and is either named after a popular king, John Koner or a folkloric witch doctor. During the celebration, African slaves used whatever materials they could find to create masks, and created elaborate processions set against homemade drums. Other instruments were made out of bones sticks, and whatever else they could find.
Celebrations in the United States
Although this tradition largely remained popular in the Caribbean, there were also recorded street celebrations among American slaves. There are records of cities in North Carolina, Virginia and New Orleans that celebrated Johnkankus festivals to go along with the holiday season during the mid-1800s. In Africa, the tradition was observed earlier in the slave trade during the mid-1700s.
The Johnkankus Tradition
There is nothing quiet about this tradition. It is a spectacle of colors, dance, and music set against grotesque masks. Those watching the parade are often entertained and frightened at the same time. Parade participants dress in costumes and masks and dance vibrantly for communities thankful for a break from work. It was the celebration for those who could not afford traditional forms of entertainment.
A Forgotten Memory
There were very few Johnkankus celebrations after the Civil War, mostly because it had been associated with slavery. In the early 1900s, future generations would refer to the practice as Coonering – a misspelling of Koonering, a title many slaves had given it. And because the masks were always so ugly, no one wanted to be associated with koonering anymore. As white society began to adopt the practice into childhood antics, the African American tradition died out.
Reviving A Lost Tradition
The tradition of John Koner is not completely lost. Celebrations are still held in the Bahamas. You can even read about the American slave experience in the children’s story, Irene Jennie and the Christmas Masquerade. Through festivals like these and stories that continue to carry on, the history of the African American Christmas tradition continues for generations to come.