1619: The Dramatic Performance Traditions of North America's First Enslaved Africans


Jeroen Dewulf


Title: 1619: The Dramatic Performance Traditions of North America’s First Enslaved Africans

Abstract: This paper focuses on the dramatic performance traditions of the “20. and odd Negroes,” who landed in Virginia in August 1619 and are considered the earliest enslaved people from Africa to be sold in the Thirteen Colonies. In spite of the paucity of sources on the enslaved community in Virginia, there are many documents that describe performance traditions in seventeenth-century West-Central Africa, from where the 1619 community originated. Using historical documents and data from ethnographic studies, this article attempts to demonstrate how some of these traditions, most notably the sanga and the kikumbi, crossed the Atlantic in the context of the slave trade and influenced a number of dramatic performances in the Americas, including North America. It investigates traces of these traditions in some of America’s most iconic Black dramatic performances—in particular street parades—and concludes with a brief reflection on what the findings presented in this article mean for our understanding of the historical development of African-American dramatic culture.

Keywords: Performance, Parade, Dance, Kongo, Angola, Portugal, Louisiana, New York, Pinkster, Mardi Gras

Author: Jeroen Dewulf is a Professor at the University of California, Berkeley. jdewulf@berkeley.edu

Disclaimer: Unless otherwise indicated, all findings presented in this paper are the result of my original research. In its broad scope, however, the article touches upon a large number of performance traditions and, for two of them (the Mardi Gras Indians and Pinkster), builds on some of my earlier research that is presented here in altered and updated form, including Jeroen Dewulf, “Pinkster: An Atlantic Creole Festival in a Dutch-American Context,” Journal of American Folklore 126, no. 501 (2013): 245-71; “Black Brotherhoods in North America: Afro-Iberian and West-Central African Influences,” African Studies Quarterly 15, no. 3 (June 2015): 19-38; “From Moors to Indians: The Mardi Gras Indians and the Three Transformations of St. James,” Louisiana History: The Journal of the Louisiana Historical Association, Vol. LVI, No. 1 (Winter 2015): 6-41; The Pinkster King and the King of Kongo: The Forgotten History of America’s Dutch-Owned Slaves (Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 2017); From the Kingdom of Kongo to Congo Square: Kongo Dances and the Origins of the Mardi Gras Indians (Lafayette: University of Louisiana at Lafayette Press, 2017); “Sangamentos on Congo Square? Kongolese Warriors, Brotherhood Kings, and Mardi Gras Indians in New Orleans,“ in Cécile Fromont (ed.): Afro-Catholic Festivals in the Americas: Performance, Representation, and the Making of Black Atlantic Tradition (University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2019), 23-41; “The Missing Link between Congo Square and the Mardi Gras Indians? The Anonymous Story of ‘The Singing Girl of New Orleans’ (1849),” Louisiana History Vol. LX, No. 1 (Winter 2019): 83-95.

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