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.
“As I was reading about it, I said - you know what - we need to bring the holiday back,” said Norvell, a 61-year-old Harlem resident.
The highlight of the event, organized by the African American Pinkster Committee of New York, is the crowning of the Pinkster King, and the telling of the holiday’s story in traditional songs, percussion-driven music and dance.
It is not the first of its kind in the state. The Philipsburg Manor in the Hudson Valley town of Sleepy Hollow has hosted a Pinkster celebration since the mid-1980s.
Pinkster’s resurrection in New York City comes at a time of renewed interest in its former slave market, with legislators pushing for a historical marker at the site.
“People don’t fully know how pervasive slavery was across the country - they think it’s a southern issue and that the North didn’t really deal with slavery,” said Councilman Jumaane Williams, who backs the plan. “It’s nothing further from the truth in New York City.”
For Norvell, it is also important to recognize that African-Americans in the northeast forged traditions of their own, though not as well known as Southern traditions such as banjo playing and juba, a dance style also called hambone.
The event takes place at the African Burial Ground National Monument, housed on the ground floor in a federal office building. The original 6.6-acre cemetery, located just outside the original Dutch settlement of New Amsterdam, was the final resting place for an estimated 15,000 free and enslaved Africans, according to the National Park Service, which manages the facility.
“One of the things I feel is so important is that there’s no shame in being the son or grand-son of slaves,” Norvell said. “The body may have been enslaved but not the creativity or the soul or the spirit, and we need to honor that. Pinkster does that.”
Editing By Frank McGurty and Chris Reese