Swept into debate


Nicquel Jones and Edward Lofties recently got married in Ellicott City and jumped over a broom -- placing themselves amid a controversy over African-American history and tradition.

Adherents say "jumping the broom" -- a marital practice brought to widespread attention through Alex Haley's best-seller "Roots" is a moving African-American tradition going back to the days when slaves were denied legal marriage ceremonies.

"My grandmother used to preach to me about it," Mr. Lofties said. "I wish she were here to see it."

But some black academics say the ceremony is, at best, an unfortunate vestige of slavery and even question its historical legitimacy.

"There's no African origin for this," said Dr. Maulana Karenga, professor and chair of black studies at California State University, Long Beach, and founder of Kwanzaa, the annual African American cultural celebration.

"It's a demeaning ceremony," Dr. Karenga said. "Why the broom? Why not a spoon, a frying pan or other item in the kitchen?"

Nonetheless, many black couples say that jumping the broom adds an important element to traditional wedding ceremonies devoid of African-American customs.

"It connects them with their African ancestry, heritage and culture," said Judith Pitt-Hunter of Columbia, who, with Lewis E. Andrews Jr., also of Columbia, leads the ceremony at wedding receptions throughout the Baltimore area. "They want that connection."

In its most popular form, the ceremony involves the bride and groom holding hands and jumping over a custom-made broom symbolizing the coming together of their families. After the jump, the broom is preserved as a family heirloom.

Though there are no figures on exactly how many couples have taken part in the ceremony, thousands of books explaining the tradition have been sold.

But supporters and critics disagree on the practice's origins and how it should be viewed.

Dr. Karenga, for example, said he has seen no documentation of historical or contemporary use of the practice prior to its popularization in "Roots."

And although he respects the desire to make something positive out of what adherents believe to be a slave-era practice with African roots, Dr. Karenga said, "it's like the N-word -- you can't clean some things up."

Dr. Molefi Kete Asante, professor and chair of African American studies at Temple University in Philadelphia, said the practice is something that was created by whites because they had no respect for blacks.

"It's a degradation of marriage," Dr. Asante said. "I'm tired of African-Americans participating in it."

However, others argue that the tradition rightfully belongs to the African-American community.

Harriette Cole, a former "Essence" fashion editor, who in 1993 wrote "Jumping the Broom: The African American Wedding Planner," researched slave narratives and anthropological studies and conducted interviews. She concluded that slaves themselves created the ceremony.

"It doesn't make sense to me that the slave-masters would try to figure out a ritual for slaves to get married," said the author, whose book has sold 80,000 copies. "The slave-masters forced slaves, through a whip. Why would they say: 'Here is something -- get married.' "

Supporters of the practice argue that the ceremony draws its power from both tradition and symbolism.

"The slaves did this as a symbol they're jumping into the household as a family," said the Rev. Vashti McKenzie, pastor of Baltimore's Payne Memorial AME Church, who includes jumping the broom at the end of weddings that include African-oriented elements.

Baba Jamal Koram, a Catonsville resident and a former president of the Baltimore-based National Association of Black Storytellers, said the broom "sweeps the house clean and makes it presentable." The slaves were "sweeping out the old and bringing in the new."

The hints of controversy have done nothing to discourage Ms. Pitt-Hunter who, with her Columbia business partner, leads 25 to 30 jumping-the-broom ceremonies each year, at a fee of $150 each.

"We're doing it so much more, even for anniversaries and renewal of vows," said Ms. Pitt-Hunter, who owns the African American Bridal Shop in Columbia's Owen Brown village.

At the Lofties' recent wedding ceremony at a Columbia neighborhood center, Ms. Pitt-Hunter's partner explained the custom to about 50 guests, some of whom were dressed in African attire.

As the couple stood in the center of the room, libations were poured in honor of their ancestors and relatives called out ancestors' names. The relatives also wished the couple well and tied white ribbons around the custom-made, long-handled broom decorated with purple netting.

On the count of "three," they jumped the broom together. Then, holding the handle of the broom, they swept in the same direction to symbolize unity.

The jumping-the-broom ceremony is "a way of passing on the torch," said the bride's mother, Saundra Utley, of Columbia's Long Reach village. "A lot of people -- believe it or not, black people -- have never heard of jumping the broom."

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