In many ways interlaced with the wedding ceremony itself, “Jumping the Broom” is known as a symbol of love as much as one of defiance.
As a tradition most notably tied to African Americans, the practice is commonly attributed to enslaved Africans who, when denied marital rights by the state, would boldly perform their own rituals to validate their unions.
It’s hard to know what part of this act served to legitimize/solidify a couple’s nuptials. In “Jumping the Broom: Myth, Memory and Neo-Traditionalism in African-American Weddings,” researcher Imani G. Strong noted, “we cannot know whether it was the broom, the act of jumping, or the use of wood, that caused slaves to adopt the binding ritual.”
Even so, the practice persisted, and in fact persists to this day, with a notable resurgence in the latter half of the last century.
The cause for that uptake, as well as the origins of the practice itself, are at once controversial and culturally significant.
The “Roots” of Jumping the Broom
In 1977, an adaptation of Alex Haley’s Roots novel aired on ABC television as an 8-episode miniseries.
In the series, Kunta Kinte, originally from the Gambia, “jumps the broom” with his love interest Bell to validate their marriage. According to Tyler Parry, Assistant Professor of African American and African Diaspora Studies at the University of Nevada, Roots’ popularity “reintroduced the unique matrimonial rite to American popular consciousness.”
In the context of the broader Black Power and Civil Rights Movements, and against the backdrop of notions of Pan-Africanism, “jumping the broom” began to reemerge in the Black American psyche and consequently in wedding ceremonies across the country.
Strong explains that “the political moment of the Roots awakening lent itself to the production of certain salient values and a political identity formed around the connection to Africa.”
That’s because jumping the broom, in the minds of many, represented a distinctly and authentically African tradition, one with roots that pre-dated the slave trade and contact with European colonialists.
The central problem with this revival, however, was a misunderstanding of the loose, if not wholly lacking, historical connection to the African continent.
Not (just) another European Tradition
Rather than being a uniquely West African tradition, there’s evidence that jumping the broom actually originated in the British Isles. According to the late Alan Dundes, former University of Berkeley Professor, research links the practice to Roma people who inhabited England, Scotland and Wales.
In what was known as a “Besom” or broom wedding, Roma couples would “step over” Besom brooms as a symbolic gesture representing the defeat of evil or witchcraft and as a metaphor for consummating a marriage.
Why the custom has been so resolutely mislabeled as an African one can perhaps be ascribed partially to Roots, but can more simply be blamed on haphazard scholarship.
Strong posits that “there is so little currently unearthed historical evidence tying it to Africa and so much to imply that it came from Europe.” Dundes simply concluded that “the slave custom was not invented in the United States, and it is not derived from ancient African ritual. It is an undeniable borrowing from European folklore.”
Still, he asserted that it nonetheless constitutes “a legitimate longstanding tradition.” That is to say, that one need not think its non-African origins in any way detract from the significant cultural and historical merits jumping the broom holds within the Black American context.
What to make of Jumping the Broom Today
Today, with persistent adoption among brides and grooms of African as well as non-African descent, jumping the broom remains a political and at times polarizing act.
According to Parry, “We still know very little about the ceremony’s transfer from Britain to various cultural groups throughout the antebellum South.”
Yet as a ritual that hearkens back to a time when people of African descent in the United States—and indeed to varying degrees around the world—were not considered fully human, jumping the broom continues to serve as a reminder of personhood and personal autonomy.
When any couple ties the knot, they bring together long-standing traditions with at times convoluted histories, not unlike that of jumping the broom. Ultimately, wedding customs exist to accent the joining of families and the declaration of mutual love and fidelity.
In many ways, jumping the broom continues to serve as an act of defiance, and insofar as it promotes and celebrates black love, it can fulfill Black Power aspirations of freedom, strength, and unity.
In many ways, “Jumping the Broom” is known as a symbol of love as much as one of defiance. As a tradition most notably tied to African Americans, the practice is commonly attributed to enslaved Africans. They, when denied marital rights by the state, would boldly perform their own rituals to validate their unions.
It’s hard to know what part of this act served to legitimize/solidify a couple’s nuptials. In “Jumping the Broom: Myth, Memory and Neo-Traditionalism in African-American Weddings,” researcher Imani G. Strong noted, “we cannot know whether it was the broom, the act of jumping, or the use of wood, that caused slaves to adopt the binding ritual.” Even so, the practice persisted and persists to this day.