Traditions & Culture in the African American Community

Traditions & Culture in the African American Community

“Me and Mrs, Mrs Jenkins, Mrs Jenkins, Mrs Jenkins
Mrs. Jenkins, we’ve got a thing going on
We both know that it’s wrong
But it’s much too strong to let it cool down now.”
My aunt is belting out the lyrics to Billy Paul’s; ‘Me and Mrs. Jones.’ Instead of using the last name Jones, she uses her own last name. We are at my parents’ house, and this has become a tradition of ours. Every Saturday, or whenever possible both sides of my parent’s families come to our house to eat and sing Karaoke. This is one of the many traditions that we have, some are things that we just started doing regularly, like our annual Christmas parties and BINGO day. Others are the things we’ve picked up from our ancestors, and they’ve just been passed along from generation to generation.
Growing up in my family, we experienced different traditions. We celebrate holiday dinners together, Sunday dinners, family reunions, family vacations, and so much more. There are so many traditions in the African American community, and some of us don’t know why these traditions exist, which is a shame because it’s our culture and we should know everything about it.
When I sit and think about it, I realize that I never knew why certain things had to be done and how or where did they originate from.
Jumping the Broom
Jumping the Broom; it’s not only a popular tradition in the African American community, but it’s been made into the theme of a movie. Last year a movie entitled; ‘Jumping the Broom’ hit theatres. The movie was about a young black couple who hadn’t known each other for long, and deciding to get married. These two people were from two different worlds, the bride’s family was high-class and wanted a traditional American wedding, the groom’s family, was middle class and wanted to relive the traditions of our great ancestors. Angela Basset, an actress in the movie, who was the bride’s mother said in an interview; “A lot of young people don’t know the strains and struggles that people have made so that we have opportunity today… Jumping the broom signifies a time when slaves weren’t allowed to marry. Families were broken up; children were being snatched away from their parents. ” This is significant because it lets those of us who know nothing at all about this tradition, know why it’s so important in our culture. It wasn’t until after I seen the movie, that I wanted to learn more about jumping the broom, the real meaning of it. Basset was right, a lot ‘us’ don’t know anything about the tradition.
According to Larry James article about ‘jumping the broom,’ he states; “Jumping the broom is a ceremony dating back to the 1600s and derived from Africa. Dating back to slavery days, jumping the broom together has been part of weddings for couples who want to honor the tradition. It also has roots in the Celtic culture and including but not limited to Welsh, Celtics, Druids, and Gypsies and some aboriginal or shamanistic cultures. ” Unlike Basset’s statement, this goes into more details about the history of this tradition, which is important because it’s vital to know why our great or great-great grandparents care so much about doing this at weddings. Although I’ve never seen this personally done at weddings, I’d love to restart to tradition within my family at my own wedding.
When a couple jumps over the broom, it’s their way of leaving their past behind, and walking into a new life as one. Each part of the broom represents something different; the straws of the broom represent family; the handle represents the Almighty, and the ribbon represents the tie that binds the couple together.
Something that’s just as important as weddings is the holidays, it’s another time when we all come together and celebrate.
African-American culture is rooted in Africa. According to Wikipedia Encyclopedia, “It is a blend of chiefly sub-Saharan African and Sahelean cultures. Although slavery greatly restricted the ability of Americans of African descent to practice their cultural traditions, many practices, values, and beliefs survived and over time have modified or blended with white culture. There are some facets of African-American culture that were accentuated by the slavery period. The result is a unique and dynamic culture that has had and continues to have a profound impact on mainstream American culture, as well as the culture of the broader world.” This defines exactly what African American culture is and what nations, and/or cultures are involved in black culture as a whole.
“Now it’s time to get funky
To the right now, to the left
Take it back now y’all
1 hop this time, 1 hop this time
Right foot 2 stomps, left foot 2 stomps
Slide to the left, slide to the right
Crisscross, crisscross
Cha-Cha real smooth.”
DJ Casper’s lyrics are loud in the party hall of Holiday Inn Express. I’m surrounded by family, we’re celebrating Christmas. Everyone is on the dance floor doing the newer version of the electric slide, “the cha-cha.” It’s now at the part where he says;
“Freeze, Everybody Clap yo hands
Come on y’all, check it out
how low can you go?
Can you go down low?
All the way to da floor?
How low can you go?”
My cousin is grooving, and she trying to go low, but apparently her jeans is a bit too tight, before she makes it back up her jeans rip right down the middle. The funny thing is she doesn’t really seem embarrassed, and if she is, she’s doing a fantastic job at hiding it.
This tradition is done at every family get together, the cha-cha, the cupid shuffle and any other slide that is popular at the time. Although my family and I have our own set of traditions for Christmas parties, we ignore the traditions that came from the roots of our African American culture.
A tradition I’ve never heard of, but is no longer recognized, is Jonkankus; it was a celebration which honored an ancient African chief. Jonkankus was a dance done on Christmas and Easter. In her article about the roots of African American Christmas tradition, Irene Smalls said; “In celebrating the Johnkankus, the community members were continuing an African folkway and also creating one of the first African-American traditions. ” Instead of waking up to ask about presents on Christmas, kids would ask about Johnkankus. This tradition lasted for nearly 300 years. This made kids back then a lot less dependent on toys and gifts, and more on the spirit of Christmas, the holiday itself.
Although this is a tradition that hasn’t been done in years it still interest me, because it shows me how much myself and the others in my community don’t know about our history. Johnkankus isn’t the only tradition that I was surprised by.
Kwanzaa was actually to my surprised originated in Africa, never has my family celebrated this holiday, nor did any other black families I knew. I grew up believing that white Americans celebrated this holiday. On the ‘Christmas in America’ website they talked about different holiday traditions including kwanza. “The holiday originated in 1960s, during the civil rights movement to commemorate African heritage of African Americans who use Swahili language. ” As many may know, the holiday lasts for a week. There are family events, gifts are exchanged and black, red and green candles are lit to symbolize the seven basic values defined for the African American family life. The meaning behind kwanza, I’ve always known about, and I thought I knew the meaning behind it all but apparently not as much I thought.

Soul Food
We all usually arrive at the same time; me, my parents, and everyone else in our family. Today is no different. It’s 1998, I’m nine years old. I’m surrounded by aunts, uncles, cousins, my parents, siblings and of course my paternal grandparents. It’s Sunday evening, and we’re getting ready for the usual dinner we have. I look at the huge green house on the Southside of South Bend. I hate the color, and it reminds me of puke. I walk in with my parents, and the aroma hits me; Greens, dressing, sweet potatoes, chicken, and so many other foods and of course desserts. The big oak table, which seats maybe 12-14 people, is almost set. Since it isn’t ready, I play in the living room with my cousins until Granny Barbara calls us for dinner. The living room wall is filled with pictures; cute and embarrassing ones. We never get to play long because several minutes after we start, we’re called to dinner.
Food is something that brings all American families together. Every year on Christmas and Thanksgiving, my family sits around a huge dinner table filled with a variety of different soul foods; dressing, sweet potatoes, collard greens, turkey and/or ham, and so much more. No matter what is going on, if you put a plate of soul food on the table and surround yourself with family the problems are temporarily resolved.
My great grandmother, who was born and raised in Arkansas, taught myself, my siblings, and my cousin about the different types of foods. Most of the foods originated from down South, such as southern fried chicken, which is chicken, seasoned, floured and battered and then fried. I use to think that only African Americans had this meal, but now the meal is outside of the African American culture. Along with chicken, watermelon and chitterlings also known as chittlin’s are also popular within the Black Culture and originated from down South. I knew that fried chicken and chittlin’s were stereotyped around blacks, but I never knew that watermelon was stereotyped around black people as well.
We all hate black eyed peas, but our granny won’t let us be dismissed until we finish them. I stuff my mouth, go to the bathroom and spit them out. I’m sure they know what I did.
Ironically two, of the three topics I have begun with thus far, started with some type of song; it makes me realize that music really is an important factor in my life. I love all genres of music, from R&B to country. My family also listens to it; while at work, while doing homework, while showering or any other activity, music is most likely involved.
While sitting in my magazine writing class, (there are usually four in the class, but one student is absent.) Heather Augustyne is the guest speaker; she is talking about Ska music. This is a genre no one in my class, me included has ever heard of. Augustyne smiles as she says, “I figured this crowd is too young, for that.”
In her book, An Oral History, Augustyne says; “Ska is a music genre that originated in Jamaica during the late 1950s, and was the precursor to rock steady and reggae. Ska was combined elements of Caribbean mento and calypso with American jazz and rhythm and blues. It is characterized by a walking bass line accented with rhythms on the upbeat. ” This just lets us all know more about the history of culture.
Wikipedia talks about music and African Americans, the encyclopedia states; “African American music is rooted in the typically polyrhythmic music of the ethnic groups of Africa. African oral traditions, nurtured in slavery, encouraged the use of music to pass on history, teach lessons, ease suffering, and relay messages. During slavery, Africans in America blended traditional European hymns with African elements to create spirituals. Music was used to pass by time, and give slaves the Holy Spirit. ” Back then and in this day in age, music was comforting, and relaxing, it puts you in another world.
Rap and R&B is popular now in the Black culture. R&B is usually mellow and soft tunes. For the majority of the time, its lyrics are about; love, lust and/or sex, but using so many words. Rap; which I’m not a huge fan of, can be offensive, there is usually a lot of cursing and degrading women in the songs. I’m sure our ancestors would be spinning in their graves, if they heard half the words that are said by rappers.
Hair is very important to Black American women. Some like me don’t mind wearing weaves. I don’t like to get perms though. Others like one of my best friends; Len likes to wear natural styles. She’ll wear hers wild, natural curly, twist, braids, or corn rolls, etc. In the slavery days black people we’re always referred to as ‘nappy headed’, this means their hair is curled up, and dry, brittle and tangled. I prefer not to walk around with my hair like that so I depend on chemicals. Just as the movie was made about; jumping the broom and soul food, a movie has been made about hair as well. It’s called ‘Good Hair,’ comedian Chris Rock discovers the curiosities of African-American hairstyles, after his 7 or 8 year old daughter asked him why her hair wasn’t straight like a girl who was in her class, who was mixed with White and Black.
In Noliwe Rooks book; ‘Hair Raising’ this is what she had to say about African Americans and their hair; “since the beginning of African civilization, hairstyles have been used to convey messages to greater society. As early as the 15th century, different styles could indicate a person’s marital status, age, religion, ethnic identity, wealth and rank within the community. Unkempt hair in nearly every West African culture was considered unattractive to the opposite sex and a sign that one was dirty, had bad morals or was even insane. Hair maintenance in traditional Africa was aimed at creating a sense of beauty. ”
As the years go by, more and more styles are incorporated into the Black community, some I’m not too fond of and others I like. Hair no longer identifies your age, religion, or marital status. People can now choose how to wear their hair. When I see people both old and young wear afros or just natural hairstyles, I always wondered why they do so. I learned it’s a way for those individuals to express themselves as well as show their roots. Since the end of 2010 the natural hair styles are becoming extremely popular amongst college students and young adults. I respect the people for wearing their hair natural, because it shows they’re not afraid to show where they come from. I don’t want to get things confused though, because I’m not ashamed of where my ancestors came from, I just prefer different hairstyles.
Maintaining facial hair is more prevalent among African American men than in other male populations in our society. “The soul patch is so named because African American men, particularly jazz musicians, popularized the style. The preference for facial hair among African American men is due partly to personal taste, but also because they are more prone than other ethnic groups to develop a condition known as pseudo folliculitis barbae, commonly referred to as razor bumps, many prefer not to shave. ”
In Good Hair, Chris Rock interviews Reverend Al Sharpton who asserts, “My relaxed hair is just as African-based as an afro because it all came out of black culture. ” By this he means that even if you do get perms or relaxers you’re still representing your community because both perms and relaxers come from Black Culture.
African American cultures and traditions have come so far over the years and it will continue to grow in the future. Traditions in my own family are improved and added every year; one that I love is our family reunions. Every year we have song that’s played for our coming together and celebrate our lives as families, as well as our grandparents, cousins, aunts, uncles, who aren’t there to celebrate with us. The song is ‘Family Reunion’, by the O’jays.
“It’s so nice to see
All the folks you love together
Sittin’ and talkin’ ’bout
All the things that’s been goin’ down
It’s been a long, long time
Since we had a chance to get together
Nobody knows the next time we see each other
Maybe years and years from now
Family reunion (Got to have)
A family reunion
Family reunion
(It’s so nice to come together) To come together
(To get together)
I wish grandma could see
The whole family
I sure miss her face
And her warm and tender embrace
And if grandpa was here
I know he’d be smiling for me a tear…”
To see what he has done
all the offspring’s from his daughters and sons

As the song comes on, I sit and think about how true the lyrics are. We all wish that Granny Barb and Papa Kenny were in the picture, but they’re not and we know it so we keep their spirits alive in our traditions.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s