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African ritual at Somerset

Not all slave culture went underground and unnoticed. In 1880 Dr. Edward Warren gave an account of an African slave dance at the Somerset plantation here in his book ''A Doctor's Experiences in Three Continents.'' At Christmastime on the plantation, slaves did the ''John Koonering'' (or ''John Canoe'') dance, Warren wrote. The story is that John Canoe was a West African leader who fought the Dutch in the 1720s, says Duke University professor Peter Wood. Africans performed the ritual to call him to come back down among them.

As slaves, they kept the ritual as part of the whites' Christmas festivities. One person played the part of John Canoe, festooning himself with bones, bells, and ribbons, and a mask made of a raccoon's skin. He did what Dr. Warren described as ''a combination of bodily contortions, flings, kicks, gyrations, and antics of every imaginable description . . .'' to music played by fellow slaves, in front of the white family. He ended by demanding a quarter. His sidekick, dressed up in Sunday clothes and also a dancer, passed the hat.

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The slaves ''got to do things they couldn't do otherwise - go on the porch of the big house. It was a confrontation (between slaves and owners) in the guise of Christmas giving,'' says Dr. Wood. He compared the John Canoe dance to the confrontation between children and adults in trick-or-treating.

The dance was prevalent in Jamaica, but in North America it has only been documented in North Carolina. This, Wood says, is surprising, because there were many more slaves in West Virginia and South Carolina, both of which had ports, while North Carolina had none. ''It's conceivable, but probably never provable, that the whole ceremony reached the North Carolina coast with (Josiah Collins's) shipment of slaves,'' which came direct from Africa to Somerset plantation, Wood says.

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