I love Angela Bassett. She’s one of the most skilled and intense actresses I think I’ve ever been exposed to and I do my very best to ensure that I see any film she’s set to play in. One recent film I adored her in, was Jumping the Broom (2011, dir. Salim Akil), a charming wedding movie where Bassett co-stars with Paula Patton, Loretta Devine and Laz Alonso as the mother-of-the-bride. This touching film explicitly familiarised me with the old tradition of “jumping the broom” – something I’d heard about and had a vague sense of, but didn’t really understand properly.
Various sources claim this wedding tradition has its roots in both Welsh Romani and West African cultures, and all attest to the significance of this practice during the slavery era in the United States. To put it plainly, slaves could not legally marry as they were considered to be property that could be bought and/or sold at the whim of their “masters”. It is no secret that plantation owners also forced the coupling of certain slaves in order to “breed” slave types for a more handsome profit. The tradition was presumably carried over from West Africa by captured slaves who continued to practice the wedding tradition – regardless of legal constraints – as a way to show fellow plantation folk their love and commitment to their chosen soul mate. This tradition regained recognition due to Alex Haley’s 1976 book Roots and its subsequent mini-series. The popularity of the ritual of the bride and groom joining hands before hopping over the pieces of wood and straws, is evident in its contemporary usage, reflected in its depiction in African American cinema such as the wedding scene in The Best Man (1999) and more recently of course, Jumping the Broom.
The latter wedding film depicts Sabrina and Jason, a couple in conflict over whether or not they will incorporate this timeless practice (which was observed by his parents) into their own ceremony. Sabrina (played by Patton) and her mother wants their day to be “simple and elegant” while Jason’s mother Pam (Devine) insists the couple use the same broom she and her deceased husband jumped over, in order to honour his memory and carry on an important family tradition. Meanwhile, Jason (Alonso) just wants to keep all the women in his life happy. In the drama that inevitably unfolds, the film reaffirms the importance of remembering certain elements of the past, which have brought us strength and humility.
Last year my partner and I travelled to Ghana, and while we were there, Toon proposed. We stayed at the One Africa resort, a coastal compound founded by repatriated Seestah IMAHKUS, author of He/She Who Has Returned: a 21st Century Anthology of African Diasporan Returnees to Ghana (2009). Our hostess relocated to Ghana with her family over 20 years ago and now continues to preside over her resort which is popular with backpackers just looking for somewhere to stop for a couple of nights as well as expatriates who need to get away from the hustle and bustle of Accra. Most importantly, IMAHKUS’ resort appeals to a younger generations of people of African descent, who are often travelling to Africa for the first time either on a school trip or – like us – on a romantic holiday come pilgrimage of sorts. We met many such people while we relaxed at One Africa for over a week, soaking up the sun and breathing in the coastal air, just five minutes drive from two slave forts, Cape Coast Castle and Elmina Castle. IMAHKUS effectively resolves this seeming paradox – of being a self-confessed Garveyite who originally moved to Ghana to escape the racist culture inherent in the USA on one hand and running a lively, colourful holiday resort just moments away from a slave fort on the other – with her moving and vastly chronicling “Walls of Remembrance”. These two rooms are wall to wall with pictures, artworks, old newspaper cut-outs, copies of official documents and other artefacts of antebellum and Jim Crow era USA. The rooms also commemorate the election of US President Barack Obama as well as pivotal historical moments of the continent of Africa, such as the independence of Ghana, the end of apartheid in South Africa and the extreme famine in Sudan during the 1990s.
IMAHKUS has been instrumental in encouraging African American families to make the trip to Ghana and come to terms with their ancestry, even guiding tours through the slave forts at Elmina and Cape Coast, which affected me more than I thought they would. Part of the emotional journey I was initially forced to take upon being confronted by the home-land of my ancestors and the artefacts of our history, has been my willingness to jump the broom. As the first member of my entire family to visit West Africa – and from long conversations with my father – I believe I will also be the first to partake in this wedding ritual (post slavery at least), despite being raised in England rather than the US and despite marrying someone who is not of African descent. In a therapeutic sense, to me this acknowledgement of who I am and also who my children will be, is brought full circle by also acknowledging my ancestry as well as the resilience and sacrifice it took so that I can be the person I am and enjoy so many privileges that others continue to struggle for. I want my own descendents to not only look back to Toon and I as the couple who re-initiated broom jumping into our family, but to look further.
It is very likely that had Angela Bassett not been in the film Jumping the Broom I wouldn’t have watched it. Had I not watched it, I would not have gone away and researched the tradition and been so affected by it when proposed to in Ghana last summer. To some it may seem a little corny or unnecessary for couples to continue to make use of this tradition. However, on that summer evening at One Africa, in that moment of dreaming of our future together, Toon and I were also bravely confronting the past. It is not only my history. As a white European, it is also his. The courage it takes to seriously contemplate the realities of slavery as well as its far reaching legacy – in Ghana, the USA and the Netherlands – is the courage I hope to pass onto future generations. Furthermore, I want my children and their children’s children to know that even though we made brave choices, it cannot compare to what our African ancestors already survived. Over the coming decades, I want my children to be reminded not just of the love and commitment of our family, but also of our historical strength. Finally, alongside the honouring of our African heritage, I want them to appreciate and never take for granted the privileges they have gained through their European ancestry.
I hope our broom can serve as a symbol of these sentiments to the future generations to come.