Old African-American celebration given second life in New York

Fri May 29, 2015 10:16am EDT
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By Sebastien Malo

NEW YORK (Reuters) - An African-American celebration called Pinkster dating back to the 17th century is enjoying a quiet revival in New York, giving the city a fresh glimpse at the largely ignored contribution that black colonists made to America's emerging culture.

Considered the oldest African-American holiday, Pinkster was virtually unknown to generations of New Yorkers until three years ago when a group of black history enthusiasts decided to resurrect it.

The festivities, now an annual event, take place this weekend in lower Manhattan at the site of a colonial-era African-American burial ground that itself was almost lost to history until unearthed during a 1991 construction project.

"Africans are always left out of history," said Christopher Paul Moore, a historian and retired curator at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in New York City's Harlem. "The revival of Pinkster helps us to just have a fuller understanding, awareness of what was happening in this country."

Pinkster was brought to the New World by settlers from the Netherlands, its name derived from the Dutch word "Pinksteren," meaning Pentecost, a Christian holiday falling on the seventh Sunday after Easter. Slaves and free colonists with African roots soon fused the holiday with their own traditions, giving Pinkster a distinctive American character.

In its heyday, Pinkster was an week-long celebration that featured African music and dancing, and the crowning of a Pinkster king, portrayed by a slave dressed like a military officer.

The holiday was pushed underground in New York state after a ban in 1811, long after the British ousted the Dutch from their foothold in North America. Pinkster gradually receded into the history books as the Afro-Dutch community lost touch with their colonial traditions.

The New York City revival began when composer John Derek Norvell ran across the word "Pinkster" time and again while reading about early African-American music when he was a doctoral student.   Continued...

A man walks through the African Burial Ground National Monument in New York in his May 3, 2013 file photo.   REUTERS/Brendan McDermid/Files