A wedding is a beautiful celebration of love, but the wedding of a Black couple is also a celebration of their rich culture. The wedding may include nods to their heritage and background, and these traditional acts can occur during both the ceremony and the reception. The choice to integrate these traditions is up to the couple with every wedding being as unique as the couple themselves.
Before attending nuptials that may include these traditions, learn about their history and importance straight from expert Rebekah Dani.
Meet the Expert
Rebekah Dani is the CEO of Rebekah Dani Events based in California. She has planned luxury weddings and events for the past 12 years, including weddings featuring Black traditions.
- What should I wear? “Traditionally, African American wedding attire is formal in essence,” says Dani. “It is common that African American weddings are elaborate and lavish, and the attire usually follows suit. You will find a lot of African Americans who pull from traditional African attire or what some may call ‘church’ attire.” However, each wedding is unique and the invitation will often say what type of attire is necessary.
- How long does the ceremony typically last? The length of the wedding varies depending on how many rituals are integrated into the wedding. According to Dani, the length of the ceremony is usually 45 to 60 minutes.
- Who usually officiates the wedding? The officiant varies with each couple, depending on their desires or religious views. It is common for a minister or a clergy person to officiate weddings. Some couples may have a ‘home church’ or a church they visit often and have the leader of their church take on this role. However, a couple may even choose a close family friend to officiate the wedding.
- Where are they often held? “African American weddings are commonly held in churches or halls,” says Dani. “Now, you can find Black weddings happening at a variety of venue spaces based on the taste of the couple, but it is common (whether religious or not) to hold it at a church in honor of God and the family.”
- Do both newlyweds need to be Black to have Black traditions at their wedding? No, this is not required. A wedding is a celebration of both individuals, so a Black person might be marrying someone from a different culture and these traditions can still be a part of the wedding.
Read on to learn more about the most common Black wedding traditions.
Knocking on the Door
Asking for a bride’s hand in marriage is a common practice in engagements around the world, but this tradition can actually be traced back to Ghana. This particular version of the tradition from Ghana is known as kokooko. The groom knocks on the door and asks for permission to enter. After entering, the groom gives gifts to the family, like money and alcohol. The groom then makes his desire to marry his girlfriend clear, and the family discusses the prospect before the father gives his blessing.
When terms are finalized, such as a dowry, the father then asks the bride three times if she wants to be engaged. After answering, the family celebrates and the engagement is official. Nowadays in the United States, asking for a woman’s hand is not required but when it does occur, it is done as a sign of respect and could be a simple phone call or a family dinner, and gifts and money are not typically required. However, in some cultures, the traditional kokooko still occurs.
A kola nut is a fruit that is full of caffeine and used for medicinal purposes throughout tribes in Niger, Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Nigeria. At weddings, it is used as a symbol of unity. The couple exchanging and consuming the nut together also represents that they will heal each other. In Nigerian ceremonies, the couple and their family share the nut. Nigerians keep the nut as a reminder to heal any problems they might have. African Muslims share a kola nut during the engagement ceremony to promote fertility.
In a wedding of a Black couple, a way to acknowledge loved ones that have passed or the elderly that are present at the wedding is a libation ceremony. Held during the wedding ceremony, alcohol or holy water is poured in each cardinal direction: north, south, east, and west. Prayers, toasts, and sometimes individual names are said to honor those that have passed to connect the couple to their ancestors. This is done to not only recognize those that have passed but also so the married couple can gain wisdom and guidance from the deceased.
Tasting the Four Elements
A ritual from West Africa that you may see during a Black wedding ceremony is the tasting of the four elements. Couples taste 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. “It is meant to represent different facets of marriage like those mentioned in the traditional vows, ‘for better or worse, for richer or poorer, sickness and in health,’” Dani said. Guests enjoy seeing the different facial expressions that the couple have while tasting these pronounced flavors. Sometimes these four elements are put in decorative glasses or on plates.
Tying the Knot
Tying the knot is integrated into many cultures’ weddings, including Black weddings. In other cultures, it is referred to as handfasting. During the ceremony, the couple will have their wrists tied together with Kente cloth, strings of cowrie shells, braided grass, or decorated rope.
What the couple decides to use for the ritual can have different meanings. For instance, cowrie shells represent destiny and prosperity. The Kente cloth is often a symbol of Black pride. Its colors represent ideals: black for spiritual strength and maturity; red for blood, political passion and strength; blue for peace, love and harmony; gold for wealth and royalty; green for growth, harvest, and renewal; white for purity; and purple for Mother Earth, healing and protection from evil. The couple says their vows while their wrists are being tied together and the officiant ties the knot to confirm the commitment they made.
The crossing sticks ritual dates back to slavery. During the ceremony, the couple cross sticks while exchanging their vows, representing unity and power. The sticks used during this ritual may be from a tree from a family home or a meaningful place for the couple. Instead of using sticks, some couples use sparklers. A couple might also use sparklers at the end of their ceremony and have guests participate in the tradition.
Jumping the Broom
Some couples may incorporate the tradition of jumping the broom into their wedding ceremony. The exact origin of this ritual is unclear, with conflicting accounts of it being traced back to West Africa and Wales. In the United States, it is connected to the times of slavery. Enslaved people would jump over a broom in order to marry. In modern times, couples have this as part of their ceremony to honor their heritage. After the vows, the couple jump over a decorated broom to complete the ceremony. The broom is often kept as a keepsake after the nuptials.
A ritual you may see at a wedding is the money dance, which is also called the money spray, dollar dance, and apron dance. The money dance is part of many cultures, but it is most common among Yoruba and Igbo tribes in Nigeria and the countries that Nigeran people have immigrated to. The money dance occurs during the wedding reception. When the newlywed couple dances and celebrate their good fortune, guests toss money at them. The money is seen as a fund for the couple to start their new life and can be in any amount. There are people designated to collect the money off the ground for the newlyweds once the money dance has ended.
Integration of Black Greek Sororities and Fraternities
If either or both of the newlyweds are a part of a historically Black sorority or fraternity, members of the organization (referred to as brothers and sisters) will put on a special performance during the reception. Members of the organization will serenade them or do a “stroll,” a special dance where they form a line and do a synchronized dance while moving around the reception venue. Often the bride or groom will join in with their fraternity brothers or sorority sisters. Their sorority or fraternity might also be tied into the wedding by using the organization’s colors as their wedding colors, or by having members as part of the wedding party.