As a child, sitting in the back yard fanning away relentless blow flies in scorching July heat, I questioned the sanity of my parents, who insisted on taking a five-hour drive to Rocky Mount, N.C., for a burnt hot dog and a piece of barbecued chicken. Every year, I had to endure this miserable picnic dubbed a "family reunion."
And boy, was I irritated by those country people, who referred to me only as "Puddin's baby" - a reference to my father's boyhood nickname.
Then there were the five-second introductions to little, unfamiliar faces: "This is your cousin, X." "Y'all cousins." Like that fact alone would cause us to form an instant bond, sending us into hours of enjoyable conversation and child's play.
Well, it didn't. Cousins or not, they didn't know me, I didn't know them, and we all knew we wouldn't see each other again until next year when we had to not remember each other all over again.
Then there were the banquets. We got all dressed up and drove out of state just to eat dinner and hear a boring speech. I felt no connection. No bond. Nothing. I was simply caught in the middle of a ritual I neither liked nor understood.
After reading the history of one of our family's oldest reunions, I learned that Cousin Ida Hines Bodie started the Hines Reunion in her living room so that family members, separated by distance, could see each other at least once a year. The reunion has grown into a 45-year-old organized Labor Day weekend retreat that rotates between six states and draws about 250 family members annually. Members come in chartered buses, stay in top-notch hotels for a weekend of sightseeing, shopping, eating and fellowship. Ida intended it as a social event and that's exactly what it is.
The main problem I have with family reunions is they are just that - social gatherings. Yes, we come together for meals and conversations. Again and again. The problem is: we never look back. We never celebrate our culture or tradition.
Now I see that my dislike for reunions as a child wasn't caused by North Carolina heat or boring speeches. I was discontented because I needed more than a filling meal or hasty introductions to really know my family. I needed to look at my little black face in the mirror and link it to a past, a people, and a story.
Last year, as a member of the Virginia chapter of the Hines reunion, I worked with other chapter members to incorporate some of the cultural and historical elements I yearned for as a child. Danita Rountree Green of Washington, D.C., author of "Broom Jumping, A Celebration of Love," performed a broom-jumping ceremony, linking us to a marriage tradition we lost when slavery ended.
I portrayed the matriarch of the black race in a dramatic reading of "The Negro Mother," a poem by Langston Hughes, The Negro mother traces her struggle and pain from the sands of Africa to cruel beatings, hard labor and separation from her husband and children, who were sold away. Some family members cried as we instantly bonded by reflecting on our past. We had come through all of that, yet there we sat, 250 strong. That poem gave much more meaning to a gathering that had become a habit for some and a vacation to others.
More people are making sure black families leave reunions with more than a full belly. For instance, the National Council of Negro Women is sponsoring the Black Family Reunion, a festival celebrating black culture in seven states this year. The next one will be held on the mall in Washington, D.C. this weekend.
I see reunions in a different light now than in those sweltering days of my childhood. Now I know that family reunions should not only be a celebration of a family, but THE family.
* Cynthia Barnes is a reporter in the Smithfield office.
There's no definitive answer as to where jumping the broom originated. Some people believe that the ceremony began in the 18th century in West Africa where, among some cultures, handmade brooms were used not only for cleaning but also for removing evil spirits. During a wedding ceremony, the broom was waved over the heads of a couple to ward off these spirits. Sometimes the broom was placed on the ground directly in front of a couple's path as they turned to exit the ceremony, at which point they would jump over it. The person who jumped the highest was good-naturedly designated as the household's decision maker [source: Aaregistry.com].
Jumping the broom was used as a marriage ceremony in the 18th and 19th century American South among some slave populations. It served as an alternative to courthouse or church weddings, which were prohibited by race-based laws and customs until the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments to the Constitution enforced blacks' rights as citizens [source: Washington, Sambol-Tosco]. Like many African traditions, jumping the broom survived but became less common in the decades immediately after emancipation, perhaps because the ceremony was too closely associated with slavery at the time.
February 16, 2016 – Guest speaker Danita Rountree Green, performs a demonstration of “jumping the broom” at the USPTO Black History Month Flagship event - a traditional African American marriage ceremony that symbolizes leaving the past behind and leaping into the future.