"You Can't Do That, You're the Wrong Race": African American Women Storytellers at a Contemporary Festival

Article excerpt

Women storytellers are one of the main attractions at the annual Pinkster festival in Tarrytown, New York.(1) Pinkster, a celebration of Pentecost and the arrival of springtime, is a holiday tradition that Dutch immigrants brought with them to colonial New York and New Jersey in the early seventeenth century. While Dutch slave owners in the lower Hudson Valley gathered together to celebrate this holiday, the blacks whom they enslaved enjoyed a few days' respite from their labor. Historians have documented that by the late 1700s, blacks also participated in the festivities, which included several days of dancing, music, spectator sports, and the syncretization of African and Dutch rituals.(2) Originally "allowed" by the Dutch to join in the celebration, blacks gradually appropriated and redefined the event for themselves. Eventually Pinkster evolved into an "inversion holiday,"(3) a lively festival in which blacks, both enslaved and free, were the principle actors and organizers while whites and Native Americans from the region observed from the sidelines as spectators. Fearing that the open assembly and public revelry of blacks would encourage slave revolts, white officials in Albany, New York, voted in 1811 to ban Pinkster festivals.

Recently, some African Americans in New York have reclaimed Pinkster as a commemoration of cultural pride and racial identity.(4) On the surface, the contemporary Pinkster festival is an attempt at historic reenactment for the purposes of public entertainment and education. Dressed in period costumes, performers are actually contemporary African American artists who have been invited and are paid to entertain.(5) They delight the crowds with their storytelling, dancing, music, and playing African drums at Philipsburg Manor, an historical site in Tarrytown, a suburban community on the Hudson River thirty miles north of New York City. The manor grounds now consist of only 25 of the original 52,500 acres of agricultural property once owned by the wealthy Dutch immigrant, Frederick Philipse. In the 1700 and 1800s, the Philipse family used white tenant farmers and enslaved blacks from West Africa and Madagascar to work the land and provide the labor that made the Philipses one of the wealthiest families and owners of the most slaves in the region. In 1940 the multi-millionaire John D. Rockefeller, Jr. purchased Philipsburg Manor and began restoration efforts, which were eventually assumed by Historic Hudson Valley, the historical society that Rockefeller founded. Society staff organized the recreation of Pinkster festivals at the site beginning in the early 1980s.

Two aspects of the contemporary Pinkster festival caught my eye: 1) the distinctive role of African American women storytellers, contextualized by the fact that women are largely responsible for reclaiming and shaping the festival as a whole, and 2) the attempt to focus public attention on the history and legacy of racism in the United States. Contemporary Pinkster festivals offer a retelling of the region's history. Here storytellers, assuming the personas of enslaved blacks, present themselves not as subservient or passive victims, but as artists and teachers in positions of communal authority. Radiah Harper Sumler, the director of programs for Historic Hudson Valley, began a serious effort to restore and redefine the African American aspects of Pinkster in 1988.(6) Her outreach and ties to the local African American community and her invitations to African American performers substantially changed the character of the event from one that was predominantly attended by whites to a more Afrocentric celebration. Pinkster festival now draws more African Americans than any other activity sponsored by Historic Hudson Valley. Although historic society staff did not design the Tarrytown Pinkster festival to be an explicitly political event, over time and under the guidance of Sumler, the celebration became an important vehicle for developing a sense of African American community and identity. …