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Will You Marry Me?
Marriage via the Ancestors
I remember riding on the back of a motor scooter on the small island of Tobago, sister island to Trinidad just off the coast of Venezuela, when I happened upon a wedding. My friend and I had ridden into a large, open field, one half of which was empty, the other half alive with a soccer game in full motion. Surrounding the field on three sides was a small village. Neat little houses lined the streets. Beyond the field, with the backdrop of an old fort framed by the setting sun, rushed the vivid blue ocean.
After a few minutes passed, we heard the unmistakable sound of happiness. There was laughter in the air, the rise and fall of intimate conversation—with a Caribbean accent—and a group of about twelve or so teenagers moving across the field. The young men wore dark jackets and light pants with colorful boutonnieres ; the young women sashayed in pastel-painted ankle-length dresses with delicate portrait collars. Couples were forming. Young brothers worked to impress their female companions as the sisters blushed and experimented with their newly discovered charm.
Crossing sticks was one way Black couples at the turn of the century chose to show their commitment to one another. Symbolizing the strength and vitality of trees, the staff-like sticks were crossed to honor and bless the new life that was about to begin.
A wedding had just ended in this village, and the youth were there to celebrate it. Together they walked and skipped and enjoyed one another as they passed by each family home announcing the good news before their day was complete.
The memory of that moment has stayed with me. The joy in those chocolate-brown faces, the responsibility being fulfilled of sharing the good fortune with the community, the beauty of the surroundings, all reminded me of what a rich cultural heritage Black people share, no matter where we live.
THE ROOTS OF TRADITION: FAMILY
Respect for ritual and ceremony resounds from Tobago to Washington, D.C., and Oakland, California, like a deep-bellied gong amplifying, purifying, and forever reconnecting the soul of the diaspora. You can almost hear the ancestral drumbeat when you sit back and reminisce with family elders, leaf through vintage photo albums, listen to tales of life gone by. The beat is profound, ever pulsing and uniquely ours. How each of us interprets it creates the depth and diversity that defines us all.
Especially today, when couples prepare to marry, we look for that perfect melding of all that represents our culture. In the Black community, what does this mean? What are the wedding rituals our ancestors and parents followed when they experienced this moment in their lives?
The common denominator for our people the world over is family. In some African societies a marriage is not official until a libation has been poured and a prayer offered requesting grace from those family members who have passed. In countless African tribes from the east, the west, and the southernmost points, inclusion of nuclear and extended family members throughout the process of marriage has been a given. Even today parents in some African societies still arrange marriages for their children. It is customary in Ghana for aunts and other elders to play private detective, running what amounts to a background check on a future spouse to determine that person's reputation, health and wealth status, family heritage, and other vital information. Aunts, cousins, and older female relatives throughout West Africa often take on the role of "wedding consultant," helping to secure all the details of the courtship and ceremony.
Family elders impart detailed counseling once a couple has received the requisite permission from both sets of parents. For young women the messages come both in whispered tones and in group meetings when female elders share insights on the duties of a wife—everything from how to cook food and clean house to how to make love. In Liberia there is even a special school, called Sande Society, to which young girls between ages six and ten go for several years to learn the art of homemaking. Many African societies tend to be male-centered, and young men surely don't get off the hook when it comes to marital duty. Their fathers, mothers, and community elders teach them the ways of providing for their families. Lessons vary depending upon the nature of the group's income, and whether it is based on agriculture, mining, hunting, or other means. African communities commonly practice rituals through which boys must pass to reach manhood and during which they receive all of the lessons that they need to function as adults. If a generalization can be made about a continent of people, it is that African families tend to be close-knit even today, though they may be sewn together a bit differently than their African-American counterparts.
Beneath the Surface
Yet all isn't rosy in the African family, at least as far as women go. A pervasive sentiment is that women are essentially governed by their husbands, something that women in America of all races have fought against—for better and for worse—with some measure of gain. African women tend to experience greater difficulty exercising their independence than their African-American sisters. And in the event of divorce, historically and in the present, it is extremely difficult for them to share in the dissolution of family assets. Years ago, in fact, there was what amounted to a binding prenuptial agreement in which the bride's family would be held accountable for all gifts given to her and her family since the beginning of the courtship, even if that meant from before she was born. Until all gifts were returned to the groom's family, no divorce would be granted. I have found no mention of women getting money, gifts, or even the children returned to them at the end of a marriage.
Another tradition that is endured by many African women and largely accepted throughout the Motherland is the practice of polygamy. Right now in many African communities, men are allowed to have many wives, while women are likely to be considered disgraceful if they are not virgins on their wedding night. (Followers of Islamic tradition are limited to four wives.) Some sisters in America argue that the situation here may not be substantially different, except that in African societies men are held responsible for the livelihood of each of their wives, whereas here extramarital companions aren't respected (or commonly provided for).
It must be acknowledged that there are groups of people in the United States, from the Mormons to several African-centered spiritual communities, who also believe in polygamy and encourage its existence. One sister explained that her spiritual leader justifies the practice by saying that there are not enough single brothers compared to the number of sisters. Since building families is the foundation of the Black community, he explained, the leader encourages growing the family through polygamy. Clearly polygamy is a topic of heated debate in the Black community, with men and women taking both sides.
What's less likely to get the female vote is the centuries-old practice of female circumcision. Although largely illegal, even today women along the desert plains and beyond continue to receive clitoridectomies, painful operations that mutilate their genitals, often making them unable to experience sexual pleasure. Much like other rites of passage, this operation is usually celebrated with song, dance, and feasting. Ironically, it often occurs just before the wedding ceremony. (One account indicates that the goal was not one of pain or discomfort at all. Instead, it was to make the woman more open to receive her husband. ) Alice Walker wrote a book exploring the subject, Possessing the Secret of Joy, and has been speaking on the tragedy of the tradition, while at the same time recognizing that it links women to their cultural heritage. Anthropological studies dating back to the early 1900s discuss how missionaries made desperate pleas against the practice and imposed costly fines on "offenders," hoping to end this activity—with only marginal success.
A further tension comes from the magnetic draw of industrialization that has helped to split up family units by separating many couples, as one partner travels from his or her rural homeland to the city for work. In the past, divorce was a difficult and relatively rare action for a couple to take in many African countries; today the numbers are increasing as families live under the stress of lengthy separation.
Even with the sometimes severe rituals of the wedding process, the unbalanced nature of the marriage bed, and the contemporary stresses that African families face, they still appear to be staying together and building strong family units.
RITUALS ON THESE SHORES
In America customs among people of color had to be re-created. When West Africans were brought forcibly to these shores some four hundred years ago they were stripped of much of what was theirs—their homeland, their community structure, their freedom, even, in some cases, their sometimes sexist ways. Not long after the beginning of slavery, Africans were also denied the right to marry in the eyes of the law. Slaveholders apparently considered their captives not real people but to be, instead, property that could be bought and sold. As such, they had no rights. Further, if allowed formally to marry and live together, the enslaved might find strength in numbers that could lead to revolt. Adding to their trauma, these early friends to white settlers were quickly and brutally forbidden by law to marry their white counterparts—a situation that remains a sore spot for interracial couples today.
Yet the enslaved were spiritual people who had been taught rituals that began as early as childhood to prepare them for that big step into family life. How could they succumb to this denial?
They could not. So they became inventive. Out of their creativity came the tradition of jumping the broom. The broom itself held spiritual significance for many African peoples, representing the beginning of homemaking for a couple. For the Kgatla people of southern Africa, it was customary, for example, on the day after the wedding for the bride to help the other women in the family to sweep the courtyard clean, thereby symbolizing her willingness and obligation to assist in housework at her in-laws' residence until the couple moved to their own home. During slavery, to the ever-present beat of the talking drum (until drums too were outlawed, since they were considered a dangerous and indecipherable means of communication), a couple would literally jump over a broom into the seat of matrimony. Today, this tradition and many others are finding their way back into the wedding ceremony.
Slave narratives and other early nineteenth-century documentation reveal the ways in which enslaved couples did their jumping. With the master's permission, a couple was allowed to stand before witnesses, pledge their devotion to each other, and finally jump over a broom, which would indicate their step into married life. Below is a slave marriage ceremony supplement, found in the sheet music—dated Sunday, September 9, 1900—to the song "At an Ole Virginia Wedding":
Dark an' stormy may come de wedder;
I jines dis he-male an' dis she'male togedder.
Let none, but Him dat makes de thunder,
Put dis he-male and dis she-male asunder.
I darefor 'nounce you bofe de same.
Be good, go ‘long, an' keep up yo' name.
De broomstick's jumped, de world not wide.
She's now yo' own. Salute yo' bride!
Following are two versions of jumping the broom from Bullwhip Days: The Slaves Remember by James Mellon. What's especially revealing is that in both instances the master of the plantation encouraged and blessed the union of "his" slaves. In the first passage the enslaved Joe Rawls reminisces about his wedding at the turn of the century.
Well, dey jis' lay de broom down,
‘n' dem what's gwine ter git marry'
walks out ‘n' steps ober dat broom bofe
togedder, ‘n' de old massa, he say, "I now
pronounce you man ‘n' wife" ‘n' den
dey was marry'. Dat was all dey was t'it
—no ce'mony, no license, no nothin',
Like many of our ancestors, attorney George Henry Rosedom and educator Ruth Victoria Tignor, both from Baltimore, chose elegant Western attire for their wedding in 1944.
The second passage is a description of the wedding ceremony of a woman named Tempie Durham. What is particularly disturbing is that the master also had fun at the expense of his slaves and that after an elaborate wedding, complete with food, drink, and formal ceremony, the groom had to leave to go back to his owner's plantation nearby. The couple was never allowed to live together. They did have eleven children, which prompted Tempie to write, "I was worth a heap to Marse George, ‘kaze I had so many chillun." Here's her version of jumping the broom:
After Uncle Edmond said de las' words over me an' Exter, Marse George got to have his little fun. He say, "Come on, Exter, you an' Tempie got to jump over de broomstick backwards. You go to do dat to see which one gwine be boss of your househol'." Everybody come stan' roun' to watch. Marse George hold de broom ‘bout a foot high off de floor. De one dat jump over it backwards an' never touch de handle gwine boss de house, an' if bofe of dem jump over widout touchin' it, dey ain't gwine be no bossin'; dey jus' gwine be'genial.
I jumped fus', an' you ought to seed me. I sailed right over dat broomstick, same as a cricket. But when Exter jump, he done had a big dram an' his feets was so big an' clumsy dat dey got all tangled up in dat broom, an' he fell headlong. Marse George, he laugh an' laugh, an' tole Exter he gwine be bossed till he skeered to speak less'n I tole him to speak.
The practice of jumping the broom is the most widely known wedding ritual born in the African-American community, thanks to Alex Haley's epic family saga Roots, in the dramatic scene in which Kunta Kinte and Bell took their step into married life. Since the 1970s countless African-American couples have incorporated this tradition into their weddings with the intention of creating a bridge between them and their cultural heritage. Photography professor Gary Kirksey and college counselor Shirley Williams jumped the broom outdoors after passing under a wicker trellis when they married in Ohio in 1991. Marketing executive Reginald Oliver and author Stephanie Stokes made their leap in church, right after they were pronounced husband and wife back in 1979 in Seattle, Washington. Before cutting the cake at their reception in New York City in 1992, Heather Bond and Samuel C. Bryant, Jr., jumped together into wedded bliss. And the list goes on and on. No matter how Western or cultural African-American ceremonies may be, that one act binds thousands of couples together in solidarity.
Born shortly after Emancipation, the late Starke Littleton Tignor, a ship's steward, and Mary Louise Davenport, a housewife, married in Northumber-land County, Virginia, in 1892. When Mary passed away she was buried in her wedding dress.
The use of traditions that have been either borrowed from African shores or from the Caribbean, or that were born anew here, span much farther than this one practice. In many cases, Black couples don't even realize they are part of our own tradition. Take, for instance, the lesser-known tradition of crossing sticks. Artist Lloyd Toone unearthed an early-1900s family wedding portrait from Chase City, Virginia, featuring a couple crossing two strong sticks, one more sign of holy matrimony. Among the Samburu of Kenya, sticks were also used during wedding celebrations by the groom to brand the beloved cattle that he would give his wife to finalize their vows.
Cultural links can be found throughout the process of getting married, from the food we eat, to the way we dress, to the rituals we perform at the ceremony. For example, just the thought of preparing West Indian Black Cake, not to mention eating it, whets an African-American palate. Along with plain old delicious pound cake, it is a remnant of our Caribbean and African legacies that frequently finds its way onto wedding dessert tables today. Our current desire to decorate our hair with vibrant dyes of burnished red and braids adorned with cowrie shells dates back centuries to the custom of covering hair with a mixture of red ochre and animal fat on special occasions, and of wearing the plentiful cowrie shells to encourage fertility. The revived practice of pouring libation to the ancestors and offering a prayer of supplication to them dates back possibly to the beginning of time and has been incorporated into many contemporary ceremonies.
As you turn the pages of Jumping the Broom, savor the many stories of ethnic wedding touches that appear throughout. Take note of the ways in which contemporary couples have authentically translated African rituals into their weddings as well as how they have created unique interpretations of their own. The journey begins in the next chapter with information on the nature of commitment that is necessary for every successful marriage.
YOUR QUESTIONS ANSWERED
I am of Jamaican descent, but I was born in the United States. How do I incorporate my ancestry and upbringing in a creative way?
Like many other people getting married, you want to include your heritage in your big day, which is great. Talk to your parents and relatives to learn if there were any particular activities that they included in their weddings over the years. Common in Jamaican tradition is to serve a black cake as the wedding cake. As you probably know, black cake is made of dried fruits that have been steeped in rum for many months, up to a year. Many American couples of Jamaican descent use the black cake as a groom's cake. You can invite a family member to make the cake or order one from a West Indian bakery.
I am of Nigerian descent (my father is Nigerian) and although I consider myself to be in touch with my African side, I have decided not to jump the broom. Is it disrespectful to my culture not to include this in my ceremony?
Of course not. People choose to jump the broom when they are attracted to that particular ritual. Often couples decide to incorporate it when they are focusing on their heritage in this country and honoring the struggle and beauty in our culture. Jumping the broom proves that our ancestors made beauty out of the most dire circumstances.
Being of Nigerian descent, you may want to talk with your father's family to learn what rituals his family historically incorporated into the wedding ceremony. Traditionally, West African couples have to participate in a series of activities leading up to the official marriage. Family members visit one another, investigating the potential bride and groom to ensure that the two are suited for each other and that they come from respectable families. Even when couples are Christian, the marriage is not sealed until the two families meet at the bride's family homestead, break bread, share gifts, and acknowledge the union of the two. Then, in traditional West African communities, the bride goes with the groom to live at the groom's family homestead. You may want to arrange a family gathering at your family's home, followed by a family gathering at his family's home to honor that part of your heritage.
How exactly are you supposed to coordinate a jumping the broom ceremony?
Because this tradition was passed down verbally over generations, there is no fixed way of staging a jumping the broom ceremony. The most important elements are a broom that's decorated to your taste, an acknowledgment from your wedding celebrant stating what you are doing and why, and some type of musical introduction of the event. Most common is for the celebrant to explain the history of African-American people in this country, noting the fact that our ancestors were not afforded the legal right to marry and thus created a ritual that honored their union, jumping over the symbol of households the world over—the broom. To invoke the presence and grace of these ancestors, West African drums are usually played before the actual jumping. As the drums crescendo, the two jump over the broom. This can happen in church, preferably just before the recessional. If your church does not allow the ritual in the sanctuary or you prefer to perform the ritual at your reception, you can include it just after the wedding party is formally introduced. Let your creativity guide your steps.
I am an African-American woman who is engaged to a white man. I have always dreamed of jumping the broom at my wedding, but my fiancé is a bit apprehensive. I am angry with him for not wanting to honor my heritage. Should I compromise to keep the peace or stick to my guns?
I recommend that you talk with your fiancé about your ideas as well as his about your wedding. Find out what he has envisioned his wedding to be over the years. Discuss the melding of your two ethnic traditions to discover how you both intend to become one. Be open to the discussion, having faith that something positive and uplifting will come out of it. Share with him your reasons for wanting to jump the broom. Perhaps you have thought of it as an integral part of your heritage for many years, or perhaps you consider it a symbol of embracing your heritage at this pivotal moment. Remember, you are also embracing his heritage as you marry, so consider his views and think of a natural way to make him feel comfortable. It could be that the simple act of jumping the broom, which invokes the blessings of the ancestors, will serve symbolically as a sealing of a union that would not even have been possible in many parts of this country a generation ago. If your fiancé continues to be uncomfortable, you will have to decide if the ritual is more important than your marriage.
Jacqueline Spencer, Doris Freeland Cole, Josephine Lansey, bridesmaids; Marjorie Payton, maid of honor; Ellen Dolvey Howard, bride; Harold H. Howard, groom; Ramona Schuyler Gaskins, Margaret Curtis Turner, Marcelle Walker Watson, bridesmaids; FRONT ROW: Ms. Young, flower girl; James Smith, ring bearer.
Copyright © 1993,1995, 2003 by Harriette Cole