`Jonkonnu'

Story Time

April 18, 1999|By Amy Littlesugar

Editor's note: The remarkable story of artist Winslow Homer's visit to Petersburg, Va., and the painting it inspired, "Dressing for the Carnival."

The time that the Yankee artist Winslow Homer came to stay at my mama's hotel, it was near the Fourth of July and hot enough to still the cottonmouths in the creek.

So hot, the gardens and orchards were explodin' with squash, okra, and peaches that summer in 1876.

One night, after I was supposed to be in bed, some of Mama's guests sat rockin' on the porch. Word in town had it the folks down the red clay road wanted to share something special with Mr. Homer.

Chairs rocked. Fans fluttered. Mr. Homer was advised not to go. But he'd never paid them any mind -- not this day or any other. "Stubborn Yankee!" grumbled the gentleman on the ladder-back chair.

The ladies on the wicker settee agreed.

And I wondered, till I couldn't think of anything else, What could be so special down that road?

In the mornin', I woke early. The day already shimmered with heat. Mama said Mr. Homer had left hours ago.

I hurried my chores. If Mama knew what I was up to, she didn't let on.

Down the road I ran, past sunflowers and tangled fence rails, till I saw him, sketchbook flashin' in the sunlight, drawin' fast, like nothin' else mattered in the whole world.

I looked up and felt my breath catch.

There stood a young freedman, an unfinished costume hangin' from his arms. Two seamstresses in bright white turbans hovered around him. "Hold still," muttered one, as the young man moved. A corncob pipe was clenched between her teeth.

Graceful brown arms began to sew. Red to white. White to blue. Needles sparkled in the sunlight.

And I knew right off what it was. For Mama had once told me its story. They were dressin' up for an old freedom holiday from slavery days. Jonkonnu, they called it.

And maybe the people down the red clay road told Mr. Homer about it. Maybe late one night in their cabins. When no one could see. And on one could overhear.

Maybe they told him how they were still lonesome for Jamaica. And how the music of the islands still played in their hearts.

Maybe they told him how the Fourth of July parade was only days away. But black folks wouldn't be allowed to march in it.

How dressin' up for the old freedom holiday from slavery days filled them with hopin' and wishin'. I could imagine that. Maybe Mr. Homer could too.

Because he started lookin'. Lookin' beyond the young freedman and his family. At the old Tyler place. At the gate locked up tight. He looked at clouds brewin' with rain. Then his eyes came to rest on the children.

As I watched, he looked at each one for a long while, and at the small American flag that each hand held.

When he began to draw this time, I knew he'd heard the story of Jonkonnu.

The next day was the Fourth of July. Mr. Homer took the train back to New York City.

Then we had our parade. And afterwards, we had our picnic -- while the people down the red clay road had theirs.

Mama said this was a special Fourth of July. Our nation was a hundred years old. And it did feel special.

That night there were fireworks. They sizzled and sparkled, lightin' up the darkness. I smiled. For I was seein' like I'd never seen before. And I can remember lookin' up as a shower of stars fell around me. I thought of Mr. Homer. "That's what an artist does," I whispered. "He lights up the darkness."

From JONKONNU by Amy Littlesugar. Text Copyright c 1997 by Amy Littlesugar. Illustrations copyright c 1997 by Ian Schoenherr. Reprinted by permission of Philomel Books, a division of Penguin Putnam Books for Young Readers.

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