It’s possible the whole social media Pinkster debacle never registered on your radar. Maybe this is the first time you are even reading about Pinkster. Maybe it seemed trivial to you on par with the many petty debates that flare up in your Facebook feed or public Twitter feuds that somehow receive national news coverage. Let’s be clear. It was stupid and it was petty. But not because of the platform this tableau took shape on. Facebook was merely the backdrop. The issue, front and center, was that a well-intentioned effort by an institution to bring back a historically black holiday failed in its execution in a way that may not have rung the racism alarms, but certainly echoed the growing problem of cultural competency.
But let’s back up here.
What is Pinkster?
The Wikipedia Description: “Pinkster is a spring festival, taking place in late May or early June. The name is a variation of the Dutch word Pinksteren, meaning "Pentecost". Pinkster in English almost always refers to the festivals held by African Americans (both free and slave) in the Northeastern United States, particularly in the early 19th century. To the Dutch, Pinkster was a religious holiday, a chance to rest, gather and celebrate religious services like baptisms and confirmations. For their African slaves, Pinkster was a time free from work and a chance to gather and catch up with family and friends.*”
Here is an article detailing some additional history, including the meaning of the festival and its past and present roots in Albany. The Times Union also had an article about Pinkster, as did the Troy Record, when the festival was brought back. A whole book was written about it by a Belgian researcher and scholar based out of UC Berkeley with theories about its cultural origins being fundamentally African.
To the best of my knowledge, this is how events unfolded. In 1978 The Hudson River Valley Association revived Pinkster Festival, which Fort Crailo historic site in Rensselaer took over shortly thereafter, featured re-enactors, performances, workshops, traditional foods, skits, and exhibits, including ones that directly addressed the slave trade and educated on slave culture. Schuyler Mansion and the Howe Branch wanted to facilitate a similar event that would be more accessible to residents of the South End and consulted with many of the same academics who worked with the Fort Crailo festival, including Cornell University’s Margaret Washington, who's done extensive studies of slave behaviors and historic figures like abolitionist, Sojourner Truth, as well as Eddie Eday of RPI, an expert in African musicology, who was scheduled to direct the music. In April, Schuyler Mansion announced it would be hosting a Pinkster Celebration.
On April 25, an actor notice went out for “adult men and women, all ages, to portray 18th century enslaved African-Americans attending a Pinkster Celebration. Volunteer.” The noticed also marked compensation as “Volunteer work” (pictured right). After online community members circulated the casting call and roundly criticized the event on the Facebook page, Schuyler Mansion issued an apology that same day. The original Facebook posts and event pages were then deleted.
One of the best responses was preserved via this screenshot:
Apart from the pitch perfect use of gifs, there were also some pointed clapbacks in the comment section:
Amongst these were also a few calls to action:
The aforementioned public apology...
Also rumored was that an acting troupe would be traveling up to Albany to organize a protest of the event, which evidently shut down the operation for good.
Here is the official statement given by Schuyler Mansion representatives when the paper reached out about this editorial:
“The cancellation of Pinkster earlier in June was in response to public concerns about the event. The Schuyler Mansion staff & Pinkster Advisory Council look forward to community discussions about this event, to be held in the fall of 2019 at the Howe Branch of the Albany Public Library.”
I will be straight up with you here. I’m not black and I’m not from Albany, but I am a woman of color. By all rights, I don’t have much skin in the game, even if my skin is melanated. I certainly don’t want to make the same mistake Schuyler Mansion did and have my well-meaning intentions to bring light to this story misrepresent the viewpoints of this community.
So here is my personal perspective on the matter. This is my truth.
The highlight of my high school career was the annual Multicultural Day Assembly. It was the most popular assembly of the school year, as it was genuinely unique compared to the routinely dull pep rallies that trotted out our sports teams and primarily featured the booing of freshman or the desperately earnest PSAs about reckless teen driving or peer-pressuring drug use. One day a year, our minority groups would band together and put on the most diverse show our podunk, LA desert suburbs school would ever get the opportunity to see. A group of Indian students would don the colorful saris which stayed in their closets for the vast majority of the year and do the requisite traditional Hindu dance before breaking out into a fun Bollywood number. A meringue team would move their hips from side to side with a sharp but sensual precision. We had a Russian dancer who would do rhythmic gymnastics, manipulating hoops and ribbons and balls, all whilst looking like she was floating gracefully across the otherwise non-ethereal basketball court.
I was on the tinikling team. It’s a traditional Filipino folk dance where the dancers hop between two bamboo polls being clapped together, mimicking the movements of the tikling bird hopping through the grass and out of bamboo traps set by farmers. Videos of the first performance I choreographed still exist on the internet. What that video did not capture was the applause, the roaring din of the thousands of students clapping and cheering seconds after that heart stopping minute the sped up music ends and we safely clear the sticks.
Once a year, I lived for that applause. I lived for my classmates celebrating my cultural heritage and getting to show off something cool about being Filipino. Fellow students would rave about the performance—about the stick thing I did. It wasn’t until years later when I heard This American Life’s podcast about desegregating schools and the trauma bussing had on young black students even though it ultimately served the greater good, that I began to look at it differently. I started to see how that dance, which was so important to me, was merely a show for my white classmates. I was performing for their entertainment. For their benefit. They got a taste of multiculturalism. What did I get? I got to have my ethnic heritage, so integral to my sense of self, get celebrated for one day a year when every other day most people bestowed me with racial slurs that were not even accurate (Commi, Chink, Jap).
It’s not just that Schuyler Mansion made a mistake in soliciting “voluntary” labor to portray slaves when the actors were always meant to be compensated. The bigger question here is whether these types of celebrations should be done at all. Some would say that had execution not been a total failure, Pinkster Festival would have been a good opportunity for positive representation and an interactive and demonstrative means of education on local history and acknowledging America’s past of slavery.
But I can see that some people, especially young people, are tired of their cultural heritage being put on display for entertainment and the betterment of society while being primarily directed by white narratives. What more when that heritage is something as painful as slavery? What exactly is there to celebrate? The fact is I have very complicated feelings towards what would be considered responsible and culturally sensitive representation. Maybe five years ago I would have gritted my teeth and chanted, “Visibility at all costs,” but the 2016 election has made me bitter and the success of movies like Black Panther and Crazy Rich Asians and popularity of shows like Black·ish and Fresh Off the Boat proved to me that I don’t have to grit my teeth anymore. I can demand more.
There are many arguments that could be made here and many other cultural corollaries. But the fact still remains that this particular effort towards creating a Pinkster Festival was done entirely wrong and the response thus far has been underwhelming.
What Needs to Change
White people are always sorry after the fact (as evidenced by this case and this case and this case and this case and this case and these cases, etc.). And even then, their apologies are often truncated by the fact they’re compelled not to admit any wrong-doing (like in this case or these cases or these other cases, etc.).
Dear White People, [and before you write in with hate mail, please note that I am not accusing #allwhitepeople, I am referencing the institution of white oppression and the systemic issues that perpetuate these type of racial conflicts and misunderstandings]
You should definitely keep being sorry when you transgress. However, this would all work a lot better if people were socially conscious before rather than sorry after. Instead of being well intentioned trying to do things for people of color, why don’t we build things together. We need allies and we need coalitions. We need you to show up in support of those in our community already doing this work. We need you to know when to reach out and when to step back and let us lead. Help to amplify our voices. Give us platforms in which to speak.
And to this end, I offer this to you, dear readers. Let this neighborhood newspaper, born from the legacy of The South End Scene, be your outlet.
A Call for Reader Responses
Write a letter to the editor responding to this article by e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also write physical letters and mail or drop them off at The Center for Law and Justice offices at 220 Green St, Albany, NY 12202.
You can also leave comments on our Facebook page in the thread beneath the link to this story by clicking here.
We have listed some focused discussion questions, but we would like to hear anything you would like to say.
- Can a Pinkster Festival be done respectfully and accurately? If yes, how?
- Should Pinkster Festival still be celebrated? Why or why not?
- If there were to be a community conversation regarding the incident, what issues would you want directly addressed?
- How can future cultural events be done correctly?
- What do you see as the solutions to prevent similar mistakes?