Marriage among slaves in the American South was especially unique. Masters legally controlled the slaves’ bodies, which included their reproductive functions. Devoid of laws that protected their marital rights, enslaved African Americans became particularly innovative in how they celebrated their nuptials. Enslaved people married in various formats, some opted for a Christian ceremony, while others preferred to marry without ceremony. However, the most captivating, and arguably most mysterious ritual was a practice called “jumping the broom.” The ceremony could take many formats, but the most pertinent component was the couple’s agreement to leap over a broomstick placed in front of them. If successfully cleared, the enslaved couple was married in the eyes of their community.
Many African Americans jumped over brooms until the Civil War. Following emancipation in 1865, however, many sought ceremonies that conformed to Christian ideals, hoping to distance themselves from practices associated with slavery. Former slave Rena Raines bluntly stated her parents jumped the broom during slavery, but after freedom, they went to a North Carolina courthouse and were “married right.”
The custom obtained a wide-scale revival over one hundred years later. Following its visual representation in the television miniseries Roots in 1977, in which protagonist Kunta Kinte and his wife Bell jump over a broomstick on a plantation, African Americans implemented it into their weddings as a tribute to their ancestors. By the 1990s its popular appeal spread quickly. Wedding manuals geared toward black couples discussed the correct way to “perform” the custom; entrepreneurs marketed specially designed wedding brooms to engaged couples, and spiritual leaders created ceremonies revolving around the broomstick’s symbolic value for the descendants of slaves.
But why jump a broom?
In many respects, this question remains the subject of some controversy. The ritual’s particular attachment to black American weddings causes some to assume its origins lie in West Africa mistakenly. Using Ghana as a reference point, African-American wedding planner Harriet Cole first popularized this notion in 1993. She asserted that enslaved Africans recreated the ritual under slavery to maintain matrimonial dignity since their familial ties lacked any legal protection. Academics challenged her assumption; however, pointing to British rituals that closely resembled the slave custom. They argued the broomstick wedding travelled with British immigrants to North America and slaves acquired it through their interactions with white southerners. Accordingly, slave communities throughout the South adopted the ritual and molded it to meet their needs.
Disagreements over the broomstick wedding’s cultural origins polarize its practitioners. Some writers argue that one group maintains exclusive rights to the custom despite it being steeped in the social traditions of other societies. Accusations of “cultural appropriation” frequently appear on Internet blogs and discussion boards. But the history of jumping the broom is far more complex, and commentators must be more attentive to the historical record.
Celts, gypsies, and rural Anglo-Saxons all used it in different forms.
The most cogent scholarly work finds the ritual was first documented as a wedding custom in the eighteenth century, likely originating among isolated communities throughout Great Britain. Celts, gypsies, and rural Anglo-Saxons all used it in different forms. This ceremony was advantageous for rural communities, as they could mold the custom to suit their unique circumstances. Among one community in northern Wales, for instance, a couple jumped “backward” over the broom within a year of the marriage if they wished to initiate a divorce. Elsewhere, a sect of British gypsies required the woman to jump over the broom into the man’s arms. Thus, the ritual was never circumscribed by a universally required method of performance. The broomstick wedding’s malleability made it especially adaptable for an American slave community that possessed no legal control over their own marital customs.
But “jumping the broom” held different meanings for each enslaved practitioner. House slaves typically rejected it as a wedding reserved for “field hands.” In his play, The Escape, ex-slave William Wells Brown used a character named Dolly to explain this divide: “When I get married, I is gwine to have a preacher marry me. I ain’t a-gwine to jump de broomstick. Dat will do for fiel’ hands, but house servants ought to be ‘bove dat.” Slaves in the United States never universally accepted the broomstick wedding, as not all of them viewed it as a ritual representative of their experience.
To further complicate matters, rural whites extending from Appalachia to the Louisiana bayous also jumped the broomstick. Many dwelled in locations that made immediate access to a minister or legal authority rather cumbersome. Slaves were aware of this cultural similarity. Ex-Slave Willis Cozart revealed his community jumped the broom, but later clarified, “de pore white folks done de same way.”
Debating exclusive claims to this particular tradition, as many websites are apt to do, is probably a fruitless exercise. The more important questions revolve around how and why the broomstick custom attracts such a diverse collections of practitioners. What does its ubiquity reveal about the cultural development of the US South? What does it suggest about the process of cultural exchange? Ultimately, no group can “own” this ritual. Regardless of who first utilized a broomstick for matrimony, various groups quickly adopted it. Though the ritual did not begin in West Africa, African Americans hold as legitimate a claim to the custom as Celtic Neo-pagans, Louisiana Cajuns, and the various ethnic groups throughout Appalachia who still find it valuable. The custom’s multicultural attachments suggest it holds a far more diverse historical legacy within the United States.