Jumping the broom has become synonymous with African American wedding traditions. Popularized by the Emmy award-winning miniseries Roots, the tender scene of Kunta Kinte and Belle cementing their wedding vows by jumping the broom left a lasting impression on many Black Americans. It was a symbol of perseverance in the midst of so much darkness for enslaved Black Americans throughout the 17th and 18th centuries.
“The broomstick wedding, for many viewers, conveyed how African descendants shared the profound joy of romantic love in the midst of incessant violation and trauma,” said Dianne M. Stewart, author of Black Women, Black Love: America’s War on African American Marriage. “In the years since Roots premiered, I’ve been invited to a number of weddings in which Black couples jumped the broom, considering it a dignifying African tradition preserved by ancestors.”
The popularity of the custom in Black communities is depicted in contemporary films and television such as the 2011 rom-com, Jumping the Broom. Because the wedding tradition is so firmly wrapped in Black American culture, other ethnic groups are often implicitly discouraged from practicing it. A viral tweet of a photographer’s photos showing a white bride and a Black groom jumping the broom at their wedding sparked outrage online. The images sparked disapproval from Twitter, with many users virtually shaking their heads at a white woman taking part in what’s thought of as a traditionally Black custom.
There’s no denying that jumping the broom has significant symbolism for Black people, but according to various scholars, the tradition was not exclusive to Black Americans. In fact, there are reports that the tradition originated from European tribes before America was even a country.
In order to get a fuller picture of the practice in the Black community and beyond, let’s take a brief look at the origins of jumping the broom.
The custom of jumping the broom has a long history that encompasses different wedding cultures.
The exact origins of jumping the broom are contested and unclear. Some scholars report it originated in the West African country of Ghana during the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. In some West African cultures, the broom held spiritual value and symbolized sweeping away past wrongs. Brooms were waved over the heads of marrying couples to ward off evil spirits and then placed on the ground so the couple could jump over it.
Other scholars argue that the tradition originated from British Romani customs—such as in Welsh, Scottish and Roma cultures. These communities were known for jumping the broom to seal their wedding vows. The Welsh, in particular, sustained the ritual and carried the tradition to the American South. In Wales, Roma people’s marriages were not recognized by the church, so they would have “Besom Weddings” in which a groom and bride would jump over a broom that was placed across a doorway. Some accounts say if neither couple knocked the broom out of place, then the marriage was meant to be. If the broom fell down, the wedding was called off. And to annul the marriage, the couple would jump over the broom backward.
Jumping the broom later became associated with the union of enslaved people.
During slavery in the United States, the custom of jumping the broom was introduced and adopted by enslaved people. Some believed that enslavers forced the custom on enslaved people as a form of mockery and a cryptic reminder that their marriages were vulnerable to the whims of their owners. While others argue that enslaved people would voluntarily jump over the broom to marry since they could not legally wed— the act of jumping the broom became a symbolic way to recognize their union.
After slavery ended, jumping the broom largely fell out of practice when Black Americans were legally allowed to marry in the United States. However, there was a resurgence of the tradition amongst Black communities following Alex Haley’s 1976 book and 1977 TV miniseries Roots. The phrase “jumping the broom” has even become synonymous with getting wed—even if a couple doesn’t literally jump a broom.
Jumping the broom is still an important wedding tradition for many Black Americans and other marginalized groups.
Today, jumping the broom is still a significant custom in Black weddings. Many Black couples incorporate jumping the broom after they say “I do” as a way to pay homage to their ancestors, culture and legacy. Jumping the broom is also a symbolic way to bless the marriage and embrace the joining of two families.
While in America, the tradition is highly associated with the enslavement of African Americans, in European countries like Wales or Scotland, it’s linked to the marginalized population who rejected Christianity. These communities who’ve historically been ostracized and discriminated against share origins in the tradition— it holds significance to the oppressed in multiple cultures.