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A Symbol of Defiance--or a Vestige of Slavery?

October 23, 1995|ALISA SAMUELS | THE BALTIMORE SUN

Nicquel Jones and Edward Lofties recently got married in Maryland and jumped over a broom--placing themselves amid a controversy over black history and tradition.

Adherents say "jumping the broom"--a wedding ritual brought to widespread attention through Alex Haley's bestseller "Roots"--is a moving black tradition going back to the days when slaves were denied legal marriage ceremonies.

"My grandmother used to preach to me about it," Lofties said. "I wish she were here to see it."

But some black academics say the ceremony is, at best, an unfortunate vestige of slavery and even question its historical legitimacy.

"There's no African origin for this," said Maulana Karenga, professor and chair of black studies at Cal State Long Beach and founder of Kwanzaa, the annual black cultural celebration.

"It's a demeaning ceremony," Karenga said. "Why the broom? Why not a spoon, a frying pan or other item in the kitchen?"

Nonetheless, many black couples say jumping the broom adds an important element to traditional wedding ceremonies devoid of black customs.

"It connects them with their African ancestry, heritage and culture," said Judith Pitt-Hunter of Columbia, Md., who, with Lewis E. Andrews Jr., leads the ceremony at wedding receptions. "They want that connection."

In its most popular form, the ceremony involves the bride and groom holding hands and jumping over a custom-made broom, which symbolizes the coming together of their families. After the jump, the broom is preserved as a family heirloom.

There are no figures on how many couples have taken part in the ceremony, but thousands of books explaining the tradition have been sold.

Supporters and critics disagree on the practice's origins and how it should be viewed. Karenga, for example, said he has seen no documentation of the practice prior to its popularization in "Roots."

Molefi Kete Asante, professor and chair of African American studies at Temple University in Philadelphia, said the practice is something that was created by whites because they had no respect for blacks. "It's a degradation of marriage," Asante said. "I'm tired of African Americans participating in it."

But others argue that the tradition rightfully belongs to the black community.

Harriette Cole, a former Essence fashion editor who in 1993 wrote "Jumping the Broom: The African American Wedding Planner" (Holiday), researched slave narratives and anthropological studies and conducted interviews. She concluded that slaves themselves created the ceremony.

"It doesn't make sense to me that the slave masters would try to figure out a ritual for slaves to get married," said the author, whose book has sold 80,000 copies.

The hints of controversy have done nothing to discourage Pitt-Hunter, who, with Andrews, leads 25 to 30 jumping the broom ceremonies each year at a fee of $150 each.

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At the Lofties' recent wedding ceremony, Pitt-Hunter's partner explained the custom to about 50 guests, some of whom were dressed in African attire.

As the couple stood in the center of the room, libations were poured in honor of their ancestors and relatives called out ancestors' names. The relatives also wished the couple well and tied white ribbons around the custom-made, long-handled broom decorated with purple netting.

On the count of "three," they jumped the broom together. Then, holding the handle of the broom, they swept in the same direction to symbolize unity.

The jumping the broom ceremony is "a way of passing on the torch," said the bride's mother, Saundra Utley. "A lot of people--believe it or not, black people--have never heard of jumping the broom."

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