Black History Month/Valentine’s Day Mash-upShana Jones February 26, 2017
We’ve just ended the month of Black history and Valentine’s Day and rather than add to the discussion about the atrocities of slavery or the commercialized list of ways to love your loved one, I wanted to reflect on something different. Why not marry the two topics in a discussion of how enslaved people expressed love and affection to one another?
It was difficult to find information on this because sadly, the majority of references related to forced sexual relations between slaves and their masters. After shifting my focus, another interesting angle revealed itself: customs observed in African or Afro-centric weddings, some with roots during slavery. Here are 14 interesting ones my research revealed.
1. Jumping the broom – Possibly the most well known of these traditions, it originated during slavery when slaves could not legally marry. In a public demonstration of commitment to each other, the bride and groom would jump over a broom as part of a simple ceremony. The broom is accepted as representing the “sweeping away” of the old life and former ways in favour of the new. Today, such brooms are specially made and then displayed in the couple’s home after the wedding.
2. Eating a kola nut – Some sources tell of the bride- and groom-to-be families sharing kola nuts before the wedding ceremony whereas according to others (ie. in Nigeria), the bride and groom eat one during the wedding ceremony. The kola nut has been associated with fertility and healing in some African cultures, so the sharing of this nut represents the two families’ commitment to nurture each other throughout life’s journey.
3. Decorating with cowrie shells – Once used as currency among ancient Africans, these shells are frequently made into jewellery or used to accent wedding gowns, headpieces and table centrepieces. Indigenous to West Africa, they symbolize beauty and power and have been associated with fertility, prosperity, good luck, abundance, and purification.
4. Throwing money at the bride – At wedding receptions in Nigeria, the bride is showered with money – literally! In a festive show of well-wishing and merry-making, wedding guests place money bills on the bride’s head as she dances the night away.
5. Gorging the bride-to-be – In Mauritania, a big wife has traditionally been viewed as a sign of the husband’s ability to supply in excess of his family needs. To prep young girls for wifedom, they are sent away to “feeding farms” where they are force-fed large amounts of food and punished if they can’t or won’t eat. Today, although some Mauritanians still favour rolls of fat and stretch marks, there is increasing concern over the health risks caused by this practice. This video captures the history and horrors of this practice.
6. Wearing a gele (pronounced GAY-lay) – The gele is a traditional Yoruba headpiece and beautiful alternative to the western veil. It is shaped out of fabric matching the bride’s dress and adds a truly regal flair to her look.
7. Knocking at the door – In this Ghanaian custom resembling the asking of permission to marry his lady, the family of the man (bearing gifts) knocks on the door of the family of his fiancée-to-be. Once the door is opened and the man “accepted” into his new family, the two families celebrate together and the wedding planning starts.
8. Cutting the cord – On their way back down the aisle at the end of the ceremony, the newlyweds walk through a ribbon stretching across the aisle held on either side by the eldest member of each family. This symbolises the break from the old family and the transition into their new life together.
9. Tying the wrists together – Just before the recitation of the vows, the wrists of the bride and groom are loosely tied together by the officiant as a sign of the enduring bond of marriage. The wrists may be tied with a string of cowrie shells or kente cloth, both of which are historically significant in some African cultures. Some African tribes tie the wrists with braided grass or cloth.
10. Crossing two sticks – Another practice originating during slavery, the bride and groom cross two tall wooden sticks to represent the firm foundation of their new life together. The wooden sticks also signify the power and life force of trees and the first house the newlyweds will build together. Nowadays, the sticks usually come from the respective properties of the bride and groom.
11. Using kente cloth – This cloth with the classic “African” colours of gold (prosperity), green (the land), and red (bloodshed during slavery) is handmade in Ghana and often used to accent wedding dresses, bridesmaid dresses, groomsmen’s attire, decorations, and invitations.
12. Tasting the four elements – In classic Yoruba tradition, the couple is reminded of the ups and downs of marriage — the sweet, hot, bitter, and sour — with the actual tasting of 4 foods representing these “seasons” in married life: honey, cayenne pepper, vinegar, and lemon. Some couples have the flavours baked into cupcakes and take a bite out of each, signifying the couple’s willingness to weather any emotional storm.
13. Henna tattoos – Prior to the wedding day, some African (and Indian) brides have their hands and feet tattooed with a paste of crushed henna leaves and twigs in this Swahili custom. The intricate and abstract designs signify womanhood and beauty. In some cases, they also hide the groom’s initials in a secret place on the bride’s body!
14. Libation ceremonies – In this custom practiced to honour family members, an elder pours holy water or alcohol on the ground at spots in each of the cardinal directions (north, south, east and west) while the names of recently deceased family members are recited and prayers said to the ancestors. In some ceremonies, elders present are acknowledged and asked for wisdom and advice.
These are just 14 of many more wedding customs observed by Africans and people of African descent. Below you’ll find the websites used in my research. You can also check out this National Geographic photo gallery which captures images from other African wedding traditions.
Wishing you love and encouraging all to appreciate Black history beyond February and throughout the year!