Posted by: beachchairandabook | April 6, 2016

All Hail the (Pinkster) King

Pinkster

I came upon this resplendent figure a few years ago at the Smithsonian’s Anacostia Museum in Southeast Washington, DC. I’d seen similar portraits in books about the black presence in 16th century Europe. Could he be an African musician or court page for European royalty? A nearby plaque identified him briefly as the Pinkster King. That nugget of information was just not enough for a need-to-know-it-all black history lover. I searched  the internet (and that old school research tool known as The Library) to find out as much as I could about Pinkster and why this man was its king. Some accounts differ in detail, but here’s what I learned. It had everything to do with royalty, but not in the way I expected.

In the language of the Dutch who settled in New York’s Hudson River Valley, the city of Albany and nearby regions of the state, pinkster (pinksteren) meant Pentecost. Celebrated seven weeks after Easter, it was time for the residents of New Netherlands to attend church services, celebrate baptisms, visit with friends and family and celebrate the return of spring. The azalea (the pinkster flower) became associated with the festivities.

At the same time, enslaved African Americans were given time off from their masters’  farms and households. Some traveled as far as New York City to sell produce and crafts in the city markets. In Albany they set up stalls and booths on Pinkster Hill, now home to the  New York state capitol building. Both enslaved and free black people celebrated with dancing, rhythms beat out on “the Guinea drum” and singing in an 18th century mash-up of African and European cultural expressions. According to historian William Dunlap The blacks as well as their masters were frolicking.” It was a well-loved tradition, a temporary reprieve from the reality of slavery, a time to reconnect with their own friends and family. A claim exists that Sojourner Truth considered risking her freedom just to be reunited at Pinkster with those she knew and loved.

Central to  the multi-racial celebration of Pinkster was crowning of the king.  By all accounts he was an Angolan named Charles, a slave of the mayor of Albany. During Pinkster, however, he became King Charles. The Pinkster King, dressed in European-style finery, made his grand entrance to the festival at the head of a procession of dancers and drummers. King Charles was described by many sources as tall, strong, athletic; an excellent dancer and drummer. “His authority is absolute, and his will is law during the Pinkster holidays.” For the duration of the merriment,  slave became king – he was master of ceremonies, the settler of disputes, collector of tributes and a monarch who reigned over the Pinkster celebration from the late 1700s to the early 1800s.

Gradually, Pinkster became more  African American than Dutch. African Americans were said to slyly mock the dress, manners and dance of their masters.  Satire and anti-slavery sentiments found their way into the celebration. In 1803,  a poem dedicated to King Charles was published –   “A Pinkster Ode for the Year 1803: Most Respectfully Dedicated to Carolus Africanus Rex; Thus Rendered in English: King Charles, Captain General and Commander in Chief of the Pinkster Boys.” Here’s a sample from the poem whose title is nearly as long as one of its verses:  

“A song that’s fit for Charley’s praise.

Tho’ for a scepter he was born,

Tho’ from his father’s kingdom torn,

And doom’d to be a slave; still he

Retains his native majesty.

O could I loud as thunder sing,

Thy fame should sound, great Charles, the king.

From Hudson’s stream to Niger’s wave,

And rouse the friend of every slave.”

In 1811 Albany officials  passed a law that led to the gradual demise of the festival. Pinkster  faded into obscurity until 1978. That year, the Hudson River Valley Association revived the celebration at Phillipsburg Manor in historic Sleepy Hollow. True to its origins, the 21st century Pinkster festivities include both Dutch and African American traditions. This year Pinkster falls on May 14th. And here’s a suggestion to fans of the Sleepy Hollow series. If you’re in the area, you can participate in this traditional rite of spring and imagine yourself in the company of Ichabod Crane and (“Leftenent”) 🙂 Abbie Mills as they rid the world of evil!

 

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Responses

  1. What a great piece of history! I believe Sojourner Truth grew up speaking Dutch and only later began to speak English. Thanks for sharing this.

    • Thank you for reading and for the information about Sojourner Truth. So much history! I’d read all day if I could.

      • I love history too! I posted some little known facts about Sojourner Truth on my blog a while back. Check it out.

        blackmail4u.wordpress.com/?s=Sojourner+truth

      • I will, thanks! See you on the history trail.:)


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