How to Meaningfully Honor Your Black Heritage With Wedding Traditions

African and African-American traditions aren't the same—and understanding the differences is key.
Cortney Moore
by Cortney Moore
Updated Jan 28, 2022

While weddings are the start of something new, they're also a meaningful chance to look back and honor your heritage and what brought you and your spouse-to-be to where you are now. Some may take wedding traditions for granted, but the road to becoming newlyweds is one that's filled with poignant symbolism for many Black and African-American families. From tying the knot to jumping the broom, the traditions incorporated in African-American weddings are often a mix of customs borrowed from Africa. Whether you know your heritage or just want to get in touch with your pan-African roots, as you and your partner are wedding planning, you might consider weaving these traditions into your wedding as you start your new life together. Plus, an industry expert shines a light on how these African-American, African and Black wedding traditions can be woven into your nuptials in a meaningful, joyful and respectful way.

Notably, Petronella Lugemwa, multicultural wedding expert and owner of Petronella Photography, emphasizes the importance of considering what heritage you and your partner identify with and only selecting rituals and wedding ideas that align. "I consider myself African, but not African-American," explains Lugemwa. "It's a fine line distinction but one that many get wrong and it's unsettling to Africans. African-Americans lost a lot of their traditions and history during slavery and therefore adopted new traditions that were sometimes very loosely based on African traditions but sometimes evolved into completely new African-American traditions. So if a partner is getting married and their heritage is African, they would only borrow African customs to pay homage to their cultures. Only if the to-be-wed is marrying an African-American would they consider African-American traditions. Only if the partner identifies as African-American are these traditions used."

African-American Wedding Traditions

Lugemwa explains that four traditions that couples often choose to include in their African-American weddings are the jumping of the broom, tasting the four elements, tying the knot and libation ceremony.

1. Jumping the Broom

One of the top contenders in African-American wedding traditions is none other than jumping the broom. (There's a whole movie about it, after all.) But oddly enough, unlike the rest of the practices on this list, jumping the broom has written records within Welsh-Romani gypsy communities that date as far back as the 18th century. It's also refuted that the tradition developed from Ghana and its people's esteem for brooms, which served to sweep away past wrongs and evil spirits. Regardless of which ethnic group started this trend, the act of jumping the broom became thoroughly engraved in American slave culture, when slaves were forbidden to marry. This resulted in many couples joining together in secret with ceremonies that included acts like jumping the broom to proclaim their commitment. To this day, it's not uncommon to see African-American couples incorporating customized, handmade brooms to jump over and keep as a memento long after the wedding day. Lugemwa explains that "the broom is brought out after couple is pronounced married. Prior to that, it can be hidden away under chairs."

2. Tasting the Four Elements

"This tradition was borrowed from African culture, but is sometimes misinterpreted," explains Lugemwa. The ritual originated with the Yorùbá people in Nigeria, Benin, and Togo. The ritual known as Tasting the Four Elements is a tradition that can fulfill any poetic soul. During the ceremony, the couple gets a literal taste of four flavors that are meant to represent distinct stages within a marriage: cayenne for spiciness, lemon for sourness, vinegar for bitterness and honey for sweetness. By tasting each of these flavors, newlyweds symbolically demonstrate they'll be able to remain united for better or worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health. Lugemwa goes on to note that "the specific items used in this ceremony varies by culture, but the purpose of it is to remind the couple that their marriage will not always be perfect and will go through various stages: sour, bitter, sweet and spicy/hot/fiery. Usually, the officiant will discuss each stage and advise on how to navigate that state."

3. Tying the Knot

Everyone has heard the colloquial expression "tying the knot," but it's not as commonly known that this saying is somewhat connected to an age-old African ritual. Though it's not easy to pinpoint which part of Africa tying the knot originated in, this (literally) binding tradition is highly popular with African-American couples. During the ceremony, a bride and groom have their wrists tied together with either a Kente cloth, string of cowrie shells, braided grass or decorated rope. With their wrists joined together, the couple says their vows in front of the officiant who ties the knot and confirms their commitment to the marriage. Lugemwa notes that "the knot looks differently depending on the culture and represents the couple uniting and binding themselves together in marriage. A 3 cord knot represents the union of 3 people: the couple and God. The officiant will usually tell the couple to keep God at the center of their marriage."

4. Libation Ceremony

Libation ceremonies are deeply rooted in African-American culture, including weddings. Pouring alcohol or even holy water on the ground isn't seen as wasteful, but a way to honor family members who have passed on, in addition to the esteemed elders in attendance. The liquids are poured in each of the cardinal directions while prayers and toasts are recited to connect the living to their ancestral spirits. Moreover, according to some West African tribes, libation ceremonies are needed so newly married couples can gain wisdom and guidance from those who lived before them. If you're not keen on the idea, you can always opt for an alternative beverage. It may even be more intimate if you infuse a deceased relative's favorite drink into your ceremony instead.

5. Honoring Fraternities and Sororities

While many traditions are included as a way of honoring the family that couples are born with, your wedding is also a wonderful time to celebrate your chosen family. For to-be-weds that are part of fraternities or sororities, your wedding reception is a great time to celebrate your brothers and sisters. For example, brides who are members of Delta Sigma Theta or Alpha Kappa Alpha may choose to incorporate a wedding stroll with their fellow sorors into the dancing portion of the evening. The Alpha Kappa Alpha stroll is typically performed to Strafe's 1984 hit "Set It Off."

African Wedding Traditions

Given that millions of people live in Africa or have roots stemming from the vast continent, it's hard to make generalizations about all African weddings. However, there are a handful of traditions that are frequently and customarily seen at some African traditional weddings. Additionally, there are some traditions, like tying the knot, that are often performed at both African and African-American weddings. Ultimately, it's important to talk with your partner, and your family and future in-laws, about the traditions that feel authentic to you as a way of honoring your specific heritage.

6. Knocking on the Door

teal front door on brick house
Shutterstock/ 1000 Words

Asking the family of the bride for permission to marry is a fairly common practice around the world, and the African-American community is no exception from this old-school courtesy call. But did you know that requesting a bride's hand in marriage is a tradition that can be traced back to Ghana? This particular ceremony (also known as "kookoo ko") begins with a groom knocking on the door of the bride's home and waiting for entry. When the groom's knock is accepted, his delegation presents gifts like money and spirits for libation. Once his intentions are announced, both families discuss prospects of becoming one before providing their blessing. When the terms are finalized, the bride is called in and gets asked three times by her father if she agrees to the proposal. Celebrations begin after the bride says "yes" to each request, thus making the pair's engagement official. These days, knocking on the door is done as a sign of respect for the bride's family, and she has final say in the matter. A modern and much simpler option can range from a family dinner to a brief phone call—no dowries required.

Lugemwa emphasizes that knocking on the door, while practiced in many cultures, is very culture-specific and, as such, should only be celebrated if it's a custom that feels authentically connected to your culture, rather than adapting it to fit your needs. "Several cultures do this as part of the traditional engagement ceremony," she says. "However, it's not a custom that can be borrowed because it's a very specific ritual that's part of a ceremony uniting families."

7. Kola Nuts

The Kola nut has an ancient history in the tropical rain forests of West Africa. This caffeine-packed fruit was used for medicinal purposes throughout numerous tribes in what is now Niger, Nigeria, Sierra Leone and Liberia. Eventually, the Kola nut became a unifying symbol for couples and their families thanks to its healing properties—which is why it's also popular during wedding ceremonies. Exchanging a Kola nut often represents the couple's willingness to help heal each other. However, for many African Muslims, sharing a Kola nut is an act performed during engagement celebrations to implore fertility. Although the use of Kola nuts isn't as popular as some of the other traditions on this list, some African American couples find a way to incorporate the custom into their special day either through the bean itself or with Coca-Cola, which included Kola nuts in the original recipe.

8. Money Spray

Many cultures have their own iteration of the money dance and, depending on the culture, the celebration carries with it different meaning. Notably, both Filipino and Nigerian couples will often incorporate this practice into their big day. Historically speaking, Yorùbá and Igbo tribes are the primary groups that practice this generous tradition, but it's also made its way into some African-American wedding receptions. Typically, guests toss cash at the couple in what's called a "money spray." The pair celebrate their fortune by dancing to traditional music. Some couples are lucky enough to need assistance when gathering the money off the floor—a good problem to have, of course. By the end of the night, the newly married couple has a fund to help start their life together. "The spraying or pinning or giving away of money represents guests bestowing blessings and prosperity on the couple and sometimes specific family members," explains Lugemwa.

Expert Source: Cortney Moore is an editor at Black Bride Magazine, the top destination for multicultural brides of color. To learn more about trends and tips, visit BlackBride.com.

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