8 African American Wedding Traditions

Whether you identify with a specific culture or just want to celebrate your African roots in a symbolic way, here are the most common African wedding traditions.
by Cortney Moore

Some may take wedding traditions for granted, but the road to becoming newlyweds is one that’s filled with poignant symbolism for many 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, here’s a roundup of rituals you can add to your nuptials.

1. Knocking on the Door

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.

2. Libation Ceremony

Just like knocking on the door, libation ceremonies are deeply rooted into 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.

3. Tasting the Four Elements

The Yorùbá 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.

4. Kola Nuts

Kola nuts
Couleur/Pixabay

The Kola nut has an ancient history in the tropical rain forests of Western 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.

5. 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.

6. Crossing Sticks

Another tradition that dates back to slavery is known as the Crossing Stick ceremony. In this ritual, the bride and groom demonstrated their commitment by joining wooden sticks together. When the sticks are crossed, a couple will proceed by exchanging vows that express desire for a strong beginning. Symbolically, the crossing of sticks represents unity and power, much like the tree it came from—which makes this custom an excellent way for you and your partner to start your journey together. Alternatively, you can make your wedding stand out by fusing the crossing stick ceremony with a sparkler send-off.

7. 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.

8. Money Spray

Want to make a few dollars back on your wedding day? Add a twist to your wedding with a Nigerian money dance. 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.

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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