For a frank discussion of how African-American traditions translate into modern life and marriage, we turned to author and former fashion editor of Essence Magazine, Harriette Cole.
Cole has firsthand experience with many African-Americans' renewed interest in their cultural history, specifically with how it manifests in wedding celebrations. She is the author of several best-selling books: Jumping the Broom: The African-American Wedding Planner (Henry Holt, 1995); Jumping the Broom Wedding Workbook: A Step-By-Step Write-In Guide for Planning the Perfect African-American Wedding (Henry Holt, 1996); and the recently released How To Be: Contemporary Etiquette for African-Americans (Simon and Schuster, 1999).
What trends have you noticed in African-American weddings recently?
Couples want more of a personal stamp on their weddings and look to their heritage as a way of doing this. Within the African tradition there is room for a wide range of expression -- there are many customs to draw from, including East African, West African, Egyptian, and Moroccan. A couple can go all the way African or incorporate what I like to call "cultural kisses" into the proceedings. These are little things that introduce aspects of heritage into the sacred wedding ritual and call forth and celebrate one's heritage and ancestry.
What are some customs and rituals that set African-American weddings apart?
There is an important sense within African culture that although a wedding takes place between two people, it also, and perhaps more importantly, is a time to celebrate family -- both the existing ones and the new one being formed. More emphasis is placed on the families' roles in the union. African tradition celebrates families in ways that are sacred and special through blessings, family get-togethers, and lavish feasts. These three aspects are often incorporated into modern wedding planning.
How can a couple get their families' blessings?
Traditionally, there was a greater emphasis on the aspect of permission. Today, receiving family blessing tends to involve a family gathering, even if you have to travel to be together. This forms a supportive bond around the couple, and says that these people will be there in good times and bad.
What happens when the two families meet?
When the two families meet, they are joined spiritually. Gifts are exchanged, prayers are offered, libations are poured to the ancestors, and the families exchange histories. In the African tradition, this constitutes the actual marriage -- a marriage on the spiritual level. Today, people are incorporating this into their wedding ceremonies -- family members stand and join hands, then the guests do the same while the minister makes a blessing of unification.
Why is a lavish reception so important in an African-American wedding?
The reception serves as the couple's introduction to the community, where they become new pillars of society. Food takes on a sacred, symbolic aspect. Because the whole village was often invited to break bread in celebration of the new couple, the food served was very important. Caterers need to learn these traditions to serve the growing market of couples who want their reception food to reflect who they are.
What do these rituals accomplish for an African-American couple?
They keep the spirit alive -- the feeling that one's words and deeds mean something and the acknowledgment that you are becoming family and will cultivate new family relationships after the wedding. The ancestors created these rituals as insurance policies for life's hard times. Family vows can help you when you need it, so you need to participate in these relationships.
Are these customs exclusively African-American, or can the ideas behind them be applied to all weddings?
These ideas are grounded in African-American tradition, but they are universal. Any couple getting married should first have spiritual grounding and knowledge of themselves. Certain checks and balances that used to exist in society are no longer there, leaving people to flounder. People no longer need to become part of a community before they become part of a relationship. As a result, people have unrealistic expectations about marriage -- your partner cannot make you happy, only you can make yourself happy. Create a spiritual grounding for yourself, then with your partner -- this is the secret of success for any marriage.