First of two parts.
I had the privilege and pleasure of witnessing and participating in the merging of cultures during a nuptial ceremony between a Haitian American woman and a Nigerian man.
The two-day event included rituals such as a bite of a kola nut (seemingly with properties that would cure all), an unusual exchange of gifts, a playful presentation of false brides, colorful head wraps, travel stories and multiple levels of intercultural exchanges. All that was at the “traditional” ceremony.
It was all there: Haitian and West African food, music, foreign languages, family and tribal mixings, alliances and signs, symbols and rituals.
I was invited to become a member of the Haitian-American bride’s family when I agreed to have an outfit made from the same cloth as her mother, sister, daughter, maids of honor and a few other family members and friends. It was symbolically important to represent our cohesiveness as members of the bride’s tribal clan.
We were outnumbered and outdressed by the groom’s all-Nigerian family, who wore brightly colored finery, men, women and children similarly clad in custom-made garb. It was splendid to behold.
The second phase of the ceremony included a traditional Roman Catholic wedding officiated by Nigerian and Haitian priests. The bride wore a traditional white gown with 20 covered buttons down the back and the groom wore a tux.
The cultural mixing kept on throughout the reception.
I’m an African American whose father’s family origins have been traced back to the 1790s. Through many years of research and documentation by the family’s official historian/librarian, we have amassed a large volume of verifiable and rich history and a very large family tree.
One of the consequences of having this material is that at the family reunion, held every three years, everyone is expected to recite the legacy of his or her branch (one of four) and to link us all back, sometimes along a tortured route, to a male ancestor named June, born in 1795.
We have subsequently created our own set of rituals and symbols and signs of familial relationships, all from whole cloth.
We have a family crest, for which a professor at South Carolina State University was commissioned, which depicts the family ties to farming (a plow); higher education (a learning lamp); work in the trowel trades (a carpenter’s rule); family colors (yellow and green); a family quilt that is held in custody by a different family member between each reunion; reunion rituals, including workshops on family health, the legacy of the land, financial planning, and updates to the very large family tree.
Did I mention the Facebook page?
Yes, we also have the standard family reunion events: a picnic, memorial services, group photos, a banquet, scholarships, recitation of accomplishments, recognition of the eldest and the youngest, etc.
Every other reunion takes place near Elloree (“The home I love”), Orangeburg County, S.C.
But back to the Haitian American-Nigerian wedding.
While I was there witnessing the exchanges of cultures and reveling in the beauty of the rituals, symbols and costumes, I began to, once again, lament what (I thought) I had lost by being an African American —told for so long that I had been stripped of my roots and ties to the homeland of Africa — or even an island nation.
I will concede that a specific language, knowledge of a particular village and special markings of Africa are gone but all the resistance and attempts to annihilate me/mine have failed and, as evidence of that, all I have to do is look to my own family lore and legacy.
I take great pride and pleasure in being a WIWACAMU, our own tribe of Williamses, Waymers, Carrions and Murrays, a blended tribe of our own.
Over the 200-plus years of our making, we have come up with the stuff of legend. Some of the stories — one I really like most includes an ancestor, Mordecai, joining up with Denmark Vessey — are more colorful than what I imagine would have come from the “old country.” These are survival stories, ones that are layered with the plight of thriving, despite America’s apartheid.
I encourage every one of you to join in your own family reunions — and if one is not yet organized, begin one. The Internet is full of references of how to get started. Design your own symbols, rituals, clothing: T-shirts are a good start.
My being a WIWACAMU has helped shape my world view and I know that the tight bonds that we have begun to weave are the starting units toward building a strong nation of one.
Once again, I have experienced, firsthand, up close and personal, the value of bonding with kindred spirits through family, through marriage and any other thoughtful grouping that we choose to make in our collective efforts to be great and, therefore, to be truly free.
Antonia Williams-Gary is a consultant with Miami-based Savings and Grace Enterprise. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org