Many slave marriages were made “official” by the couple performing something called jumping the broom. This act had to be controlled and approved by the slave masters for permission before the slaves could marry. This ceremony was done usually in the fields or on a porch and the newlyweds would jump over a broom, have it waved between them, or have the groom jump over to the bride, to symbolize their marriage (Dunaway, 118). The broom represents the joining of two families; it’s a tradition that has stuck around to this day and is often practiced by many African Americans in honor of their ancestors and their past. I was drawn to this cultural act because my family continues to jump the broom at every wedding we celebrate and has been a part of our wedding ceremonies since we all can remember.
Although it’s common to believe jumping the broom was created during slavery it actually was a European tradition already. It was a common practice amongst the Welsh, British, and Celtic peoples. In England there was a term known as a “broomstick weddings” (Pack). After the Marriage Act of 1836 there was a spike in weddings that involved jumping over a broomstick hand-in-hand. Before this act, it was illegal for anyone who wasn’t a part of the Church of England to legally marry. So after it was legalized for other religious groups to marry within an English church some groups had jumping the broom a part of their ceremonies. This came with other terms such as “sham marriage”, “marriage of doubtful validity”, and “irregular marriages” (Pack). Many European Anglicans seen the practice as distasteful and savage-like because it was coined as untraditional and held no legitimacy (Dunaway, 118). That came as a surprise to me because I believed, like most, that jumping the broom was an African tradition. It’s a current and lively debate of the origins of this practice but so far the proof of origin roots directly from Western Europe.
Originally the ceremony represented multiple things than just marriage, but with time the meanings changed and it depended on which time period you grew up in. It’s said that to those who came over the Atlantic, jumping the broom determined who ran the household; when the couple hopped over the broom whoever jumped the highest meant they were the leaders. It also meant to slaves in later generations that by jumping the woman is committing to cleaning and up keeping the home (Houston). Today, most view the practice as a way of sweeping the past behind you, the joining of two new lives, and to remember our history as black folk in America.
Slaves practiced jumping the broom due to the fact that blacks weren’t legally allowed to marry one another. This was a part of the slave codes established to control all actions of the slaves; many slave owners feared that if marriage was allowed amongst the people then it was a possible cause of threat to the owners. Many whites believed that through marriage the slaves would create bonds and unions between families and possibly revolt. In response, some whites allowed abroad marriages where the man and woman lived on separate plantations. Abroad marriages allowed for the owners to have complete control of the couples interaction and relationship. Slave marriages were of economic importance because with marriage produced more children to grow into workers and meant more free labor on the plantation. Masters highly influenced marriages by selecting partners to breed strong offspring; this occurred in about one-third of slave marriages (Dunaway, 119). Even still, abroad marriages weren’t legally documented or recognized. In special cases there were about one-tenth of Appalachian masters who allowed marriage amongst slaves to be legitimate (117).
Appalachian slaveholders had a meaningful reason behind why they wouldn’t allow slaves to marry (besides unions being formed) because if the slave couple happened to be broken up due to an auction and the individuals had to find new mates then “the clergy had to reconsider the meaning of marriage”. The church also had to consider the idea that if blacks were allowed to legally marry then it would contest racist ideologies of blacks being equivalent to whites (Dunaway, 118). Any slaves who remarried technically were committing polygamy which is a sin in the eyes of the church which would cause the slave owners to be punished or looked down upon by fellow churchgoers. So many owners would abolish the marriages if he couple was separated to avoid humiliation without legal divorce sanctions.
I find that jumping the broom was a way of resistance to their daily lives of being enslaved. Blacks, as we learned in class, were dehumanized and looked at as animals. Jumping the broom was an illegitimate marriage and they knew this but they continued to do it. Ceremonies or any kind of religious practice was illegal for slaves (Dunaway, 117). As we seen in 12 Years a Slave, black people still practiced religious ceremonies and went against the law as showed when they were burying a friend and singing religious songs. By jumping the broom they found their own way to create bonds and kinship. Family was and always has been a root of African American life and importance; blacks are one of the ethnic groups that adopt extended family ties rather than nuclear; and for someone to try and strip blacks of this and say we didn’t have the emotional capabilities of whites was something outrageous. The people finding a way to dig up a tradition and keep it in practice is admirable to me. Despite all that was thrown at the slaves they still found ways to see one another as humans.
Jumping the broom has always and to this day been significant to the African American marriage recital. It is a tradition maintained throughout slavery and today most African Americans continue the cultural legacy to honor ancestors and as a way to never forget the time when our people weren’t allowed to marry legally. “This imaginary barrier serves as a reminder to the marrying couple that the only direction is forward” (Houston).
By: Dashamena Thompson
12 Years a Slave. Dir. Steve McQueen. 2013. DVD.
Christina, Villa. “Villa Christina Wedding | Adrienne + Ngozi.” Atlanta Georgia Wedding Photographer Villa Christina Wedding Adrienne + Ngozi Comments. The Studio B, n.d. Web. 17 Nov. 2015.
Dunaway, William A. “Reproductive Exploitation and Child Mortality.” The African-Amerin Family in Slavery and Emancipation. N.p.: Cambridge UP, n.d. 117-19. Print.
Houston, Timothy. “Jumping the Broom.” InsightNews. Disqus, 10 Apr. 2013. Web. 17 Nov. 2015.
Pack, Mark. “Marriage Act of 1836.” MarkPack: Liberal Democrat. Livefyre, 16 Feb. 2011. Web. 17 Nov. 2015.