Representation and Echoes of Exuberant Liberation in the Word “Juba”

In Sandra L. Gilman’s essay, “Black Bodies, White Bodies: Toward an Iconography of Female Sexuality in Late Nineteenth-Century Art, Medicine, and Literature,” she outlines the parameters of representation as an idea and ontological constant. Representations communicate the physics of ideas that either persuade the viewer or reader towards the abscesses of one idea or move less spatially; refrained within the tight, rigid barriers of their preconceived constitution. Representation is sociological, in art and literature, as in social constructs more immediately confronted. Gilman writes, 

Specific individual realities are thus given mythic extension through association with the qualities of a class. These realities manifest as icons representing perceived attributes of the class into which the individual has been placed. The myths associated with the class, the myth of difference from the rest of humanity, is thus, to an extent, composed of fragments of the real world, perceived through the ideological bias of the observer. (1986, 223)

The work of art or story or diagram is always already apropos; steady within a class system reinforced with both casual and formal acquaintance with expected societal norms. Beauty, therefore, is not desire, but expectation. Rather, beauty is informed expectation from a cosmogenic dispel that is tied to the cast of an iron welded, still, free moving conductor. 

This echo of representation was enforced in North Carolina during occasions of John Kunering, an extravagant Christmas ritual celebrated first by slaves and later freed-persons. Words used to describe John Kunering or John Canoeing have been “indulgence” or “exuberance” or, in the words of Douglas Mac Millan, existing in “the air of gruesome mirth” (1926, 53). Sterling Stuckey cites Dr. James Norcom in his book, Slave Culture: Nationalist Theory and the Foundations of Black America, stating,

The slaves’ pent-up emotion and sorrow and the encouragement from slave masters helped account for the indulgence of many North Carolina slaves in revelry and drink on Christmas and other holidays. “It is to be regretted,” wrote Dr. James Norcom, “that drunkeness is too common on these occasions; but this also is habitually overlooked and never punished, unless it became outrageous or grossly offensive.” Perhaps the recognition of the need for some release for slaves – a recognition of fear and guilt – caused North Carolina whites to encourage John Kunering and a festive air among slaves on the streets of their towns[.]” (2013, 120)

“[F]ear and guilt” may have motivated slave masters as well as a perverse form of entertainment, but this “release” by slaves was not altogether a white construct. “Africanity was demonstrated in mourning song and dance, in the transcendence of the spirit” (2013, 122) and within those retained and released emotional outbursts were the secretive songs of heritage and life experience being communicated from one diction to the next within pearls of swine. Sterling Stuckey cites a portion of the lyrics to exemplify what the slavesong’s “monotonous cadence” may have conformed to, which I will cite in full:

My massa am a white man, juba!

Old misses am a lady, juba!

De children am de honey-pods, juba! Juba!

Krismas come but once a year, juba!

Juba! Juba! O, ye juba! (2013, 119)

A classic poem passed down in the oral tradition, from slavery to those who would write it down also includes the much contemplated word, juba.

JUba dis and JUba dat an

JUba killed my YALlow cat, O JUba,

JUba, JUba,, JUba, JUba, JUba. (Ward 1997, 3)

It is clear that classification from representation does not just occur in writing or a diagram or in story form or a drawing. The single word, “juba,” disorients the outside listener as a nonsensical utterance and allows the reinforcement of class standing or biased reading while communicating to the inside group a harrowing sound of emotive sadness, a communal pathos that derides the common antagonist with language he cannot understand. The meta-representation is aware of itself and carries on from one sound to another a shared heritage and common bondage towards language that must be esteemed to the inside listener. 

This clarity in the poem marks exuberance to any outside listener while communicating a sadness to those without bias in their listening. Similarly, this bias caused fractions in the Civil War, marking two times this song would be put to use as a national call to freedom; once in slavery, in defeat, and again in the angst of war. The reader can hear this word, this poem, as a rallying cry for freedom in the face of confederate agents thinking themselves supreme according to an order of saints, how they saw their own disposition in the national dialogue against slavery. These shades of nuance are as lived as Major Robert Anderson relocating his troops to Fort Sumter and the livid consequences that fell in the build up to secession (see: Sinha 2000, 251-254). Formally, more tired saints whisper the causing bind and bond of freedom while those too soon eclipsed echoes fragment the plasticity of the dream of freedom. Plasticity we see in representation, represented in plots of land with fragmented allowances and men determining what is allowed against other humans on that land, through enforced representation and the bias in the circles of their foregone persuasions.  

Gilman, Sandra L. “Black Bodies, White Bodies: Toward an Iconography of Female Sexuality in Late Nineteenth-Century Art, Medicine, and Literature” in “Race,” Writing, and Difference. Ed Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986.

Sinha, Manisha. The Counter-Revolution of Slavery: Politics and Ideology in Antebellum South Carolina. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000. 

Stuckey, Sterling. Slave Culture: Nationalist Theory and the Foundations of Black America, 25th Anniversary Ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.

Ward, Jerry W, ed. Trouble the Water: 250 Years of African-American Poetry. New York: Mentor, 1997.