Black Americans and Wedding Rituals: An Interview with Tyler D. Parry

 This post is part of our forum on “The Significance of the Black Family in the US.”

“Giving the bridal couple a good send-off” (Schomburg Center/NYPL)

In today’s post, Black Perspectives’ senior editor, Dr. Holly Pinheiro Jr., interviews Dr. Tyler D. Parry, author of Jumping the Broom: The Surprising Multicultural Origins of a Black Wedding Ritual (University of North Carolina Press, 2020). Dr. Parry is an Assistant Professor of African American and African Diaspora Studies at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

1. Holly A. Pinheiro, Jr. (HAP): How does your book provide an avenue to understand how various marginalized groups used marriage ceremonies to demonstrate different forms of agency?

Tyler D. Parry (TDP): Finding that the evidence for jumping the broom’s “origins” pointed to western Europe, I wanted to better understand how groups adopted and adapted rituals for their own communal needs, and what this suggested about its popularity in African American history. If the broomstick wedding was “forced” into enslaved communities, as some have claimed, how then is it remolded into something that many embraced over time? If it was accepted willingly in some circumstances, what does this suggest about agency and the evolution of Black culture in the antebellum era? As noted in your question, those who “jumped the broom” for marriage were overwhelmingly members of groups defined as “marginalized,” a term that broadly means they held little, if any, social, cultural, legal, or political power within the nation-state. Appalachian whites, Louisiana Cajuns, enslaved African Americans, and rural Celtic communities, to name a few of the groups I analyzed, all lived “on the margins” of societal recognition, and their histories were often overlooked or mocked in public discourse. In attempting to write a cultural history of these marginalized white and Black communities in both Britain and the United States, I drew upon sources that previous generations of historians found suspicious or untrustworthy since they appeared folkloric in nature. But I also credit the pioneering works of African American researchers who undertook their own independent campaigns to collect and interpret Black social life during slavery, even though their collections of oral history were overlooked for generations. Without the work of scholars like John B. Cade and Ophelia Settle Egypt in the early twentieth century, books like Jumping the Broom would be much harder to write.

2. HAP: How does your monograph provide demand that scholars, especially of the antebellum and Civil War eras, focus more on Black families as important historical figures?

TDP: A large body of literature proves the Black family was a crucial point of survival for enslaved people, and here we can note that “family” extends to kinship ties that lie outside the boundaries of the nuclear structure. Simultaneously, scholarly research proves that enslaved families were persistently destroyed by the greed of antebellum enslavers as chattel slavery expanded further to the west. Both collections of work are correct, which required me to examine the stories of enslaved people and analyze how they attributed value to the wedding rituals they used. My work on the ritual of “jumping the broom” was most interested in discerning if the selection of a specific folk ritual provided any form of “resistance” for the family and the broader community. What do wedding rituals provide for oppressed people whose intimate lives are constantly disrupted and violated by their oppressors? By prioritizing the voices of enslaved people who reproduced community histories and folklore from their own perspectives, I was able to capture a number of intimate details about the meanings of different customs and the important actions enslaved people undertook to provide stability within a continuously unstable environment. I found fathers who walked twenty miles to another plantation to visit their “abroad” families, even if they only had a single day for visitation. I found community elders giving advice to newlyweds who undertook the marital commitment, even if there was an omnipresent possibility of separation. I found people who, despite being 70-80 years removed from the experience of slavery, recollected intimate details of their wedding ceremonies, even down to the specific steps taken to “jump the broom.” I found how such stories endured within Black communities over generations who, even if they no longer were practicing the same rituals, retained this information as a keepsake for their cultural heritage. For me, studying the Black family under slavery is far more than just an analysis of its structure or quantifying the prevalence of two-parent households, it is a unit comprised of human beings who made decisions to ensure they and their descendants survived slavery’s brutalities over generations.

3. HAP: Why do you think material culture, in this case, wedding brooms, is important to understand the complexity of Black familial formations and dynamics?

TDP: I think in our modern era, we are often unable to fully appreciate the value a “broom” held within communities across time and space. Many people are only familiar with the mass-produced, plastic item that one purchase at the store, but for people in the past, even just one hundred years ago, the process of making a reliable, sturdy broom was a craft admired and celebrated by both white and Black communities in the United States. For enslaved people like Frederick Douglass, broom makers were considered skilled laborers who used their knowledge of the natural environment to morph collections of branches or shrubs into a tool that held both practical and symbolic value. Though the violence of antebellum slavery frequently destroyed and disrupted the physical stability of Black family life, documents reveal that the broom symbolized the value of the family’s shared space. Communities might gift the newlyweds a new broom to recognize their union. Women also used the broom as a symbol to show her suitor that she approved his request for marriage, and sometimes the broom was laid across the doorway of the cabin, which served as a symbolic threshold, and the couple leaped over it into the new residence. By understanding the broomstick’s entire process toward completion, from its original construction up to its use both during and after the wedding, researchers can gather important context for appreciating its value as a tool that held practical and symbolic purposes.

4. HAP: In your opinion, does your scholarship provide a much-needed emphasis on formerly enslaved marriage ceremonies to understand their generations-long battle with U.S. government institutions, including the Freedman’s Bureau and the Civil War pension system?

TDP: I think the rise, fall, and revival of the broomstick wedding provides a useful reference point for understanding the choices Black people made after 1865. On the one hand, methods from social history provide evidence that their choices were sometimes a rejection of the conformity demanded by white representatives of the federal government who held a paternalistic approach toward their entry into American society. For instance, we find Black people rejecting the assumption that their marriages under slavery were insufficient for government recognition. To me, this suggests that we must prioritize Black voices in this era to fully understand how marriage, and the wedding itself, were key aspects of the cultural shifts following the abolition of slavery. On the other hand, we do see most Black people (though not all) rejecting the broomstick marriage for nearly a century after 1865. Some refused to even discuss the ritual, while others would reject it ever existed. This broader cultural shift suggests that the decisions marginalized people made in the past, even down to the cultural rituals with which aligned themselves, were enmeshed within a complex process that requires researchers to understand the historical context under which people make decisions, and how those decisions will influence subsequent generations who will embrace, reject, or adjust them.

5. HAP: In your opinion, how important were publications (including Ebony and Jet) and the miniseries (Roots) in influencing a new generation of Black people on the significance of jumping the broom?

TDP: These publications were crucial in reviving African Americans’ interest in the ritual, and they all played a part in the process. Most works understandably credited Roots with having the most impact in reviving the custom due to its popularity in print and television. And I would agree there was no cultural phenomenon quite so singularly impactful. Speaking of the miniseries, specifically, it was a remarkable moment for many Black Americans to see Kunta Kinte and Bell jumping the broom in front of their community and be declared man and wife by a community elder. However, as I investigated further it became clear that influences from Black-owned publications were especially important for securing the custom’s rising popularity. Ebony and Jet were among the first to revive use of the phrase “jump the broom,” for instance, and Black newspapers like the Los Angeles Sentinel featured detailed reports about wedding ceremonies that utilized the broomstick custom in their nuptials. Consequently, Black Americans were gradually becoming more familiar with the custom in the 1980s and ‘90s through the messaging of popular publications, alongside the important power of the grapevine.

6. HAP: What role, in the modern era, do you believe that the wedding industrial complex plays in the continued emphasis on jumping the broom?

TDP: It becomes pretty clear that, by the last two decades of the 20th century, the wedding industry is rising in both social and financial capital, and especially wielding an influence within the middle class that it likely never held beforehand. Expenditures for weddings dramatically increased as bridal magazines gained influence among the broader American public and pushed engaged couples to financially invest in their wedding day in order to make it most memorable. Consequently, this significant growth is often termed as a “wedding industrial complex” due to its cultural and social dominance of the era. Many African American families also joined in this general trend of engaging more lavish expenditures for wedding parties (and such weddings were featured in the Black press), but we should note that their goals for the wedding were different than conventional “white weddings” often associated with Euro-American wedding patterns. In a post-Roots America, Black couples sought to incorporate ancestral traditions rooted in West African practices, as well as using symbolism to pay homage to the resilience and bravery of their enslaved ancestors. This was usually done by blending traditions often associated with the broader American wedding industry, including specific styles of dresses for the bride and tuxedos for the groom, as well as a Christian-centered ceremony in a church; alongside traditions more specific to African American culture, which could include a wedding within a historically Black church, traditional foods (either from the US South or a region in West Africa), and the newly popular custom of “jumping the broom.” So, it is true that the Black middle class joined the pursuit of the larger-scale, more expensive weddings popularized during the rise of wedding industrial complex, but they centered these choices within Black American culture and ancestral tradition. These unique ceremonies became so noteworthy they were classified as “heritage weddings,” and wedding planners began to publish manuals for Black couples seeking to honor their ancestral traditions in the modern American wedding.

7. HAP: Why, in your opinion, is your monograph a study that various historical subfields, including the Civil War and Reconstruction era, should incorporate into their curriculum?

TDP: I think it provides a number of possibilities for reaching students who still view history as a dry, systematic study of dates, battles, and governments. I still have undergraduates in my introductory classes approaching this version of history when they first enter the class, and in many ways, I can’t blame them, given how some historians still discuss the discipline as only interested in compartmentalizing the past. I think many students want to know how the past connects to the present, and they want to know how it does in a literal way. It was this approach that inspired me to write a book that began with evidence from the 18th century and continued analyzing sources into 2020, the same year of its publication. I’ve said in various interviews this book could have ended in 1865, as that date has often signaled a rejection of the ritual by those entering into a new state of freedom, and it provides an “endpoint” in the chronology. But I was never satisfied with that format, and I believed that confining the book to that chronological “endpoint” would do a disservice to its potential readers. When I first asked the question: “what is the history of jumping the broom?” I did so as an undergraduate in 2008 who was about to use the custom in my own wedding. At that point, I had little training in historiography, historical methodology, or any concept that there were walls around disciplines and the ways scholars conducted research. I simply had a question that was not prominently represented in the existing literature, and as I continued to write the book, I thought about my undergraduate self, often asking: what book would he want to read? For this reason, I am thankful I was trained by mentors who always encouraged me to ask the broadest possible questions, to not shy away from topics that spoke to me on a personal level, and to write the book I wanted to write, regardless of others’ opinions. Perhaps this is a presentist perspective, but in reflecting back on the two years since Jumping the Broom’s publication, I still see no other way I could do this history justice if I only relied upon one disciplinary method to tell the story, or if I confined the chronological scope to appease disciplinary expectations.

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Holly A. Pinheiro, Jr.

Dr. Holly A. Pinheiro, Jr. is an Assistant Professor in the History Department at Furman University. His book, The Families' Civil War: Northern African American Soldiers and The Fight for Racial Justice, will be released in June of 2022. Follow him on Twitter @PhUsct.

Comments on “Black Americans and Wedding Rituals: An Interview with Tyler D. Parry

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    Thank you both so much! I truly hope some of my kiddos will use this interview and sections of the book in our Afrofuturism class.


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