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African American Elders, Cultural Traditions, and the Family Reunion
posted 11.18.2011

By Renee McCoy

Family reunions are important rituals that have long contributed to the survival, health, and endurance of African American families, helping to maintain cultural heritage even in uncertain and turbulent times. Although there is variation in how African Americans hold family reunions these days, some key elements remain constant. One constant is that these events generate such power, in large part, from the participation of the elders—the keepers of the African American legacy.

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The family has been the bedrock of African American culture from times of slavery through the tumultuous days of mandated racial segregation. One of the most devastating aspects of the slavery experience was its ability to weaken and distort this highly revered institution; fortunately, those attempts were unsuccessful. It was the structure of the African American family, grounded in unavoidable collectivism, that enabled survival from slavery and sustenance throughout the tumultuous days of Jim Crow and widespread white supremacy.

As the toils and tears of the civil rights movement yielded positive results, subsequent progress initiated dramatic shifts in cultural patterns and processes of family life. Waning of systemic barriers widened the world and made it more accessible, while family cohesiveness and identity became diluted and less essential for survival, making families more American and less African. Large family gatherings grew less essential for the continued existence of both the family and the community, and occurred with less frequency— or were confined to religious events.

Family reunions surfaced as vehicles through which cohesiveness could be restored and culture revitalized. They emerged as rituals capable of strengthening and stabilizing the African American family, and as tools for building strong and viable foundations for future generations. African American elders became indispensible resources for their wisdom and guidance, and were, in turn, recognized and given strength, empowered, and authenticated.

African American family reunions continue to serve their earlier purposes, but also have new ones: these gatherings have now been identified as effective ways to communicate health information critical to African Americans. In 2005, the National Institutes of Health urged African Americans to use family reunions as venues for discussions about diabetes and kidney disease—diseases that disproportionately affect this group.

The Sanctity of the Pig

While African American family reunions can be a forum for health promotion, I must present a significant occurrence that stands out and instructs my personal experience of this cultural event: the roasting and eating of a pig. To understand how this animal contributes to a scholarly discussion of rituals and cultural traditions, one must consider that in my family, the pig is a highly revered animal, a sort of cultural icon. Generations of men and women who proudly trace their roots through the backwoods of Georgia, South Carolina, and Michigan boldly defend the sanctity of this animal to this day.

Despite candid discussions with and warnings from physicians, most in my family have rejected all rumors convicting sweet and succulent swine of any contribution to ill health. The pig is an animal consumed in its entirety; every part except the squeal is rumored to be edible, and it is merely a matter of time before it, too, will be deep-fried.

My family held its first reunion more than two decades ago, thanks to a nostalgic conversation at the funeral of a family elder. The large family meals many of us remembered from our youth were no longer happening, and the wistfulness of the moment called for a formal family reunion.

Aunt Samantha volunteered to begin the process since she had everyone’s phone number and usually notified the family network of deaths and births. Uncle Henry, who prided himself on cooking the best barbecue in Michigan by way of Macon County, Georgia, offered to “do” the meat. A date was set for the following summer, and one of the parks in the Detroit area was our venue. This weekend was to involve relatives living in Port Huron, Michigan, Washington, D.C., and the Detroit metropolitan area. The menu included every dish anyone could remember eating and knew how to cook. The star of the show, however, was a pig.

On the day of the reunion, excitement hung thick over the gathering. Conflicts over great and trivial details had been resolved throughout the year, and the reunion was going to happen— complete with balloons and monogrammed T-shirts. The culinary highlight of the event would be the unveiling and eating of the pig.

Uncle Henry had rented a portable grill that had been welded to a trailer with a hitch so it could be transported to the park the evening before the event. There, the older men and the women in their lives stayed up most of the night cooking: they split the animal down the middle, filled its cavity with strings of sausages, onions, peppers, potatoes, and ears of corn to add a little flair and flavor, then stitched it up with twine. Throughout the evening and into the early morning hours, they slow-roasted this pig on a spit, the men taking turns tending it while they played card games and dominoes.

Dinner was set for mid-afternoon. The hog was wheeled out to the picnic shelter where about seventy men, women, and children sat around banquet tables. We held hands as the oldest man in the family blessed the food. The older men were to be served first, then the older women; it would be open season for the rest. The memories of childhood experiences made our mouths water. I so looked forward to the taste of warm, crisp pork skin pulled—not cut—from that delicious animal. What delight! Following the prayer, Uncle Henry began to carve and serve the hog, first slicing through the twine. As he cut the stitches, the food inside began to spill out onto the table.

For those of us older than thirty-five, this was a beautiful sight. The younger folks, however, thought it was absolutely disgusting. “Ugh!! What is that?!” one especially verbose youngster shouted. “Did they cook the hog guts too? I ain’t eatin’ that.” The comments ricocheted around the shelter. I knew we were experiencing a cultural disconnect, and recognized that this family reunion was probably the absolutely most important occurrence ever for my family.

When the uninformed comments of the younger folks resounded throughout the group, the older men and women in my family stopped the proceedings: it was obvious that they were shocked and saddened by the comments. A once powerful symbol of plenty in the family had become distasteful. The older family members immediately confronted the ignorance of the younger family members. Rather than lash out in anger at their rudeness, however, one of the older women created a “teachable moment” beginning with “Hush up and let me tell you about this pig!” As she talked, other elders joined in with their own stories about pigs and growing up in hard times. They told us about working to raise pigs, only to be allowed to eat just the parts that had been discarded.

All of us learned volumes that day about the journey of our family in the face of tremendous barriers. The elders also used the opportunity to talk about everything from expectations, responsibilities, and pride, to disappointments and betrayals, to losses and victories. These elders preserved a birthright of survival constructed through personal experience. They understood and communicated that the pig represented an indispensable partner in the African American quest for life.

No other event could have facilitated such education. The large family dinners of my youth had been replaced by occasional, smaller, single-family gatherings or feasts at banquetstyle restaurants. But at this gathering, under the charismatic authority of our elders, history that had been silenced for far too long was given voice and form and enlisted to mobilize generations of unasked questions. The significance of this opportunity for my family (and for other families) is pivotal in the preservation of African American culture as elders step forward to teach and be taught, strengthen and be strengthened. It also became apparent that the multi-generational context of African American reunions provides valuable meaning and worth to elders, and to all involved.

Reunions: A Vehicle for Family Integrity

It seems to me now that the popularity of family reunions over the past three or four decades can be attributed to a number of cultural shifts. Victories were won through the civil rights movement, the world became more accessible to African Americans through significant economic growth and legislative advancements. Media expanded their world view and national image. Technological innovations facilitated far-reaching communication, making it no longer necessary to remain in the communities of birth surrounded by parents and extended families. As African Americans gained entrée to more places in society through education, jobs, and the removal of housing restrictions, their world grew larger and the centrality of the extended family shifted.

At the same time, African American families continued to reel from the unending impact of racism, including poverty, mis-education, underemployment, and disproportionate incarceration. Cultural shifts required rapid adaptation and efforts to, simultaneously, retain whatever cultural artifacts had been salvaged from the experience of slavery. All of this resulted in striving to preserve the countenance of the African American family by any means necessary. The family reunion movement was a most acceptable and relatively familiar means.

Despite progressive changes African Americans enjoyed through civil rights initiatives, daunting questions about origin, purpose, and the future of the race remained unanswered. In fact, those matters became even murkier as African Americans moved to embrace characteristic Western individualism. Fortunately, during the late 1970s, African Americans throughout America moved to better understand their own histories as a result of Alex Haley’s book, Roots: the Saga of an American Family (1976), and the resulting television miniseries. We were inspired to uncover our genealogies and unearth familial roots that had been buried under layers of acculturation and entangled in illusions of integration.

A noteworthy utility of family reunions has been their ability to give meaning and purpose to older men and women who emerge as custodians and transmitters of culture, while educating and empowering future generations of African Americans. King and Wynne (2004) have discussed the importance of family integrity for older persons. Family integrity refers to processes through which men and women receive a sense of positive self-worth and value as they become elders. It develops through meaningful intergenerational communication in which the knowledge and wisdom of elders are welcomed and heeded, and results in validation and increased self-worth. King and Wynne believe there are three components of family integrity: the transformation of relationships; the resolution of past conflicts; and the creation of meaning through shared stories, themes, and rituals. The African American family reunion brings this triad together to provide an effective vehicle for elders to develop family integrity.

Many researchers have studied the family reunion as ritual. Myerhoff (1984) describes the connective and futuristic nature of rituals as they refresh yesterday’s memories, authorize today’s knowledge, and present expectations for tomorrow. Vargus (2002) describes African American family reunions as being constructed of networks of both biological and fictive relatives. She advises that African American family reunions transmit social values, help to shape personal and group identity, facilitate communication, support well-being, identify role models, and institute effective educational opportunities.

In describing a family reunion in the rural South, Neville (1984) discusses how this day of business for elders may include caring for the graves of ancestors. For urban African American elders, there is, however, a greater likelihood that this time is spent discussing the welfare of each family unit and strategizing to provide support and guidance. This day is also a time for the older members to check in with one another, unencumbered by the responsibilities of being elders. They can share new knowledge, and recount old defeats and victories.

The climax of the reunion is the family meal. Within the context of sharing a meal, significant educational experiences occur. The final family action is worship. Many African American family reunions include attending one or more Sunday worship services: this provides a way to reconnect with spiritual traditions and invite the participation of a higher power in the health and welfare of the family. Typically, religious affiliation is not important. What matters is a common belief in and communion with a supreme being.

Passing the Torch: The New Generation of Elders

In the past, African American family reunions enabled families to resolve many of the conflicts of contemporary Western society. When we were in the company of elders, it felt less intimidating—and essential for family unity— to face some of the issues that have challenged and disrupted the African American family in modern times. Elders’ wisdom projected safety and provided a comforting sense of security.

The world has changed drastically since my first family reunion experience. Since then, all the elders in my family have died, and now I am at the head of a company of new elders. Our responses to uninformed comments from younger men and women in our family are less sympathetic; we are more critical of their stewardship of the cultural treasures of wisdom and racial pride bequeathed by our ancestors. Technological advances, such as the Internet, and increased access to education have brought both greater expectations and deeper disappointments.

My first family reunion experience is emblematic of a tradition that emerged with increased frequency throughout the United States and is now shifting in some key ways. The world has rapidly changed for African Americans and the responsibility of education is now the charge of men and women who grew up in different times. Those “elder educators” who took center stage in the first formal reunion of my family are now dead and their roles have been passed on to me and others in my age group. As part of a new generation of elders, I am finding it extremely difficult to stand in the shoes of my parents and grandparents. That first family reunion was organized around the death of senior relatives who had lived long and productive lives; the family came together in an attempt to preserve history and inhale the strength and power of our ancestors.

In recent years, however, our family reunions have become memorials for both the old and the young; we now come together to pay homage to the memories of our parents and our children. At times it has felt as though my generation stands on a slowly melting iceberg, floating on a sea of unrealized aspirations of the very old and the very young. Death wields its impact, dissolving pieces of the foundation of the African American family, taking the old through illness and the young through violence or drugs.

Although my family reunions continue, they happen less frequently. The nostalgia that inspired family reunions has been transformed by melancholy and anger at the betrayal of the trust of our ancestors by a country still undecided about our humanity. Holding the baton passed from my parents and grandparents, I long for the esteem they enjoyed from us, the quiet attention and reverence they earned simply because they survived the hazards of a racist society. The generation over which I now reign is a new creation. Respect for the wisdom of the elders has become tenuous at best among this modern generation of young men whose identities are shaped by misogynistic media, and young women who struggle to recover from the challenges presented by a society that could care much more deeply.

African Americans would have been unable to endure the violence and exploitation of racism without a strong, cohesive family to provide guidance, education, support (both emotional and financial), and safety. Family reunions have served to stabilize the African American family as it struggles to survive amid rapidly changing and increasingly complex social conditions. The need for rituals that activate and use the wisdom of elders has never been greater. Survival for this generation of new elders has different meanings.

These elders are charged with helping the young continue to exist in the face of new challenges. Whereas the elders of yesterday sought to affirm centuries-old African American values such as racial pride and dignity, we struggle to teach the young how to resist illusions of entitlement and redirect rage away from each other and toward systemic inefficiencies that crafted their disappointments and fueled their distrust.

New elders in the African American community thrash about in an ocean of distorted truths. We believed our ancestors when they told us hard work and education result in prosperity and justice. We believed our ancestors who said we should be willing to die for what we believed. Our children watched as we trusted and obeyed and were betrayed. It is now our task to somehow revive their trust in our ability to protect and empower them.

This state of affairs means we must find ways to convince them to respect themselves and one another. They must somehow come to believe— really believe—that violence against one another is violence against the future of the race. We must somehow help them understand that drugs restrain creativity and destroy our ability to grow communities.

As the new elders, we have been handed the responsibility to renew hope in the possibilities of our people. Hope for tomorrow and trust in the possibility of prosperous and productive futures hinge on events such as family reunions—happenings that engage those who have demonstrated how to survive amid and despite discrimination and institutional barriers. I often wonder if being an elder was as much of a burden for my ancestors as it is for me.

Renee McCoy, Ph.D., is an instructor and lecturer at the University of Washington, Seattle.

References

Haley, A. 1976. Roots: The Saga of an American Family. New York: Doubleday.

King, D. A., and Wynne, L. C. 2004. “The Emergence of ‘Family Integrity’ in Later Life.” Family Process 43(1): 7–21.

Myerhoff, B. G. 1984. “Rites and Signs of Ripening: The Intertwining of Ritual, Time, and Growing Older.” In Kertzer, D. I., and Keith, J., eds., Age and Anthropological Theory. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press.

Neville, G. K. 1984. “Learning Culture Through Ritual: The Family Reunion.” Anthropology and Education Quarterly 15:161–4.

United States Department of Health and Human Services. 2005. “NIH Encourages African Americans to Discuss Kidney Disease at Family Reunions.” www.nih.gov/ news/pr/jun2005/niddk-23.htm. Retrieved April 30, 2011.

Vargus, I. D. 2002. “More Than a Picnic: African American Family Reunions.” Emory Center for Myth and Ritual in American Life, Working Paper No. 21. www.marial.emory.edu/pdfs/Vargus022-03.pdf. Retrieved April 30, 2011.

Editor’s Note: This article is taken from the Fall 2011 issue of ASA’s quarterly journal, Generations, an issue devoted to the topic “Ritual in Later Life: Its Role, Significance, and Power.” ASA members receive Generations as a membership benefit; non-members may purchase subscriptions or single copies of issues at our online store. Full digital access to current and back issues of Generations is also available to ASA members and Generations subscribers at MetaPress.

 

Image: iStockPhoto/Jennifer Byron


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