On May 19, I attended a Pinkster celebration at Philipsburg Manor in Sleepy Hollow, New York.
Pinkster is a holiday that was brought to what is now America, in the 1620’s by the Dutch. To the Dutch, it was a religious holiday. However, all of that changed by the early 1800’s.
Pinkster was mostly celebrated in the Dutch settlements- the Hudson Valley, northern New Jersey and western Long Island. These areas had huge populations of enslaved Africans from the 1600’s until 1827, the year New York received it’s emancipation. During those years in between, Pinkster became a holiday for enslaved Africans. They took the holiday and changed everything about it. And the Dutch? Well, they began to celebrate American holidays like July 4th.
For enslaved people, the year offered few holidays or breaks from tedious and often grueling work. Pinkster became the most important break in the year. It was a time for gathering in rural areas or at urban markets, a time to enjoy temporary independence, make money, and purchase goods. More importantly, Pinkster meant the opportunity to reunite with family and loved ones and the chance to preserve, reshape, and express African traditions despite the restrictions of enslavement.
While I was at the celebration, I was surprised and happy to run into a little second grader from my school. When it was time to participate in African dance, we danced together.
Today Pinkster is celebrated at Philipsburg Manor, a nationally significant historic site in Sleepy Hollow, New York. Djembes and Dance, which features a re-creation of a colonial Pinkster festival, is a fun, educational event for visitors of all ages.
The event acknowledges both the oppression of slavery in New York and the ultimate triumph over it. It is the only authentic re-creation of Pinkster in North America, combining some of the most vibrant elements from over a hundred years of Hudson Valley Pinkster celebrations. From the Dutch tradition come children’s games like ninepins and stilts, special baked goods of the holiday, egg-dyeing, and European-style country dancing. From the African tradition come storytelling, drumming, dance, a grand parade, and the election of a Pinkster King.
Being at Pinkster gave me a very little feel of how slaves used to live. With the help of historians and artist, Kim and Candace, I learned what they planted in their gardens and how they made clothes. I learned what type of clothes they used to wear and what seeds they would use to make ink….if need be.
For example, slaves in the north mostly wore linen and wool but not cotton. They tended to the sheep which produced wool. Every spring they sheered the sheep, and spun their wool into yarn. Their linen came from the flax plant.
As far as clothes, women used string and men used buttons. Neither used zippers.
They were very resourceful. They made their own thread out of linen for the candles that they also made. They made their brooms out of corn husks, and used daffodil heads, onion skins and golden rods to make aprons.
I was told to check out another event called, sheep to shawl to find out more about the process of things slaves used and how they survived with the material they had.
Here is one photo of the document listing foods they had in their garden:
I also met culinary historian and author of The Cooking Gene, Michael W. Twitty.
I found myself in conversations with Dr. Celesti Fechter and others about the history of food and human movement within the America’s during the slave era.
While I was there, the gristmill was under restoration so I did not get to learn about the mill during the tours. However, there was a video screening providing history about the slaves that lived on the plantation and how the mill affected their lives.
At first I thought Betye Saar didn’t have much to offer. I had heard but didn’t really hear of her. If I would have known, I would have come before the last day. But, hey, at least I made it! And, I finally met the work- the Wash Boards. The mammy’s revolutionized.
My Grandma cleaned. That’s how she made her living. She cleaned homes. She smiled a lot. She was a kind person, her clients said. But, she was also scorn. She was also taken advantage of. She was given the shorter end of the stick. Not a life of sweetness at all. That’s whom I thought of mostly, Grandma.
I never used a washboard. I am almost willing to bet that my mom did. Maybe around her house as a child. She’s not here for me to ask her. There was one in my house while growing up. It was a musical instrument to me. Mom had purchased a white washing machine that we all loved. So, we played with the washing board, until we forgot about it.
The washing board suggest the memories of the African American women who did cleaning for others and their life style. Their characteristics that came with it. “They had a certain cleanliness about them”. That, they did, Ms. Saar. And there are some of those women who are still around.
When I am around my aunts, church mothers and Grandma. I am all of a sudden conscience of my white tee and I would beg my brother not to wear ripped jeans- they look extremely out of place around them. I am conscience of the white blouse I have and cherish but messed up in the washing machine. Knowing of them, makes me always want rid my closet of old, stain clothes. And of the stylish ripped Old Navy jacket.
I take a step back and witness the art on the walls. The walls are of the color of water. The lights are dim. The wash boards hang on the walls evenly. Using a washing board starts the process of metamorphosis. Your body turning into a machine. There is nothing even about using a washing board. Your arms move up and down, your hands back and forth, your back is bent, and your legs are steady. Steady. Stead…Steady. Steady. Stead…Steady. Trying to keep the washing in the offish rhythm. Even your neck is steady. And the pain, it comes steady, too.
I came across the white dress in the corner. The baby’s christening gown. A beautiful dress. But, adorned with racial slurs sitting atop is a child’s photo. It’s the slurs that await her. The slurs that can’t seem to be washed out of the dress, no matter how big the washing board, because they can’t be washed out of the tongue of society.
I came across another assemblage. The ironing board. Another board. This time requiring one to stand and press. Within the board are the slaves who were forced to aboard the ship, 1619. Boards. There is a chained iron and behind the ironing board is a sheet that was just pressed. And, ingrained into the sheet in small letters, but there for the world to see are the frightening letters KKK.
Blacks cleaned their sheets too?
I wonder if Saar ever thought about extending this idea of boards? With all that is going on now in black communities, we can take a step back and look at the homes the wash boards are found. Look at the boarded up windows and wooden doors of these homes or shacks. Those who could barely keep a roof over their heads. I think of Grandma again. That’s what happened to her home.
Congratulations to my brother, who graduated with his Masters in History!!
I, Too Arts Collective, in partnership with the Coretta Scott King (CSK) Book Awards Committee of the Ethnic & Multicultural Information Exchange Round Table, presented a celebration of 50 years of the Coretta Scott King Book Awards featuring CSK Award-winning authors: Tiffany Jackson, Lesa Cline-Ransome, Rita Williams-Garcia, and Renée Watson. The discussion was moderated by Jennifer Baker.
Clarivel Ruiz, Founder/Creator of Dominicans Love Haitians