Arts & Entertainment – The Pinkster Festival at Philipsburg Manor is an African- American Celebration of Spring

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by Morey Storck

On Saturday, May 14, Philipsburg Manor will host the Pinkster holiday, an African-American celebration of Spring which is known to have been observed in the Hudson Valley as early as the 17th century. The cross-cultural, colonial style festival re-creates the holiday with lively presentations of drumming, traditional dance, African folktales, and demonstrations of traditional African instruments and utilitarian wares. It is the only authentic re-creation of Pinkster in North America and is surely an educational experience, acknowledging both the oppression of slavery in New York and the ultimate triumph over it.

Pinkster was originally brought to the New World by Dutch settlers in the 1620’s and flourished in the Hudson Valley, northern New Jersey and western Long Island. Because of the very active African influence over Pinkster, it soon became apparent that it had become, more or less, an African-American holiday by the early 1800’s. There were stark reasons for this. During the 1600’s and the years leading up to emancipation in New York in 1827, slavery was a significant way of life. Slaves had nothing to celebrate, nothing to break the crushing burden and boredom of their lives.

The Pinkster holiday offered a welcome diversion. Slave-owners offered them time-off for celebration, to reunite with loved ones, friends and family, and the ability of rural slaves to travel to New York City. By the mid-1700’s, New York and Brooklyn were attracting significant numbers to the Pinkster holiday celebrations. One interesting aspect of this was the hiring of talented African dancers by European vendors to lure crowds to their selling booths. The “jig”, “breakdown”, and the “double shuffle” mixed the African and European steps with new steps and that, it is suggested, led to the introduction of tap and even break-dancing.

The first day of Pinkster corresponded with Episcopal Whitsunday, the 50th day after Easter, which fell in early May. On the second day, whites and both freed and non-freed slaves gathered to see the grand parade of the court and the arrival of King Charles, an elder elected to preside over the festival. The name Charles was taken from an Angolan-born slave who was highly regarded because of his gifted speech, dance and athletic prowess. He was also a slave owned by the Mayor of Albany. Disputes were brought to him, and those parties involved were bound by his decisions for the length of the festival. He would walk among the market stalls selling produce, hand-made crafts and goods, and demand tribute. If any vendor refused, the stall was taken down and they were asked to leave. The tribute was distributed among the revelers. As Master of Ceremonies, it was his responsibility to direct the event and to keep up the spirits of those participating in the Pinkster celebration, which normally lasted several days. More importantly, Pinkster meant the chance to preserve, reshape and express African traditions despite the degradation of slavery.
Onsite admission: $16; $14 for seniors; $10 for children 3-17. Online admission: $14; $12 for seniors; $8 for children 3-17. Free for members and children under 3.
A special Pinkster menu is offered by local caterer Nikki Toi’s Soul Food.

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