Wedding photos shared by Devonte Williford of Rare Sighting Photography featuring an interracial couple “jumping the broom” have prompted some interesting discussions – and some less measured comments – on Twitter about the connection between the tradition and slavery in the United States.

The wedding in question appears to have taken place in New Orleans, Louisiana.

The photos feature a black groom marrying a white bride, taking part in a tradition known as “jumping the broom”, the general meaning of which has also been discussed since the post went viral.

But what is the tradition’s connection to slavery specifically, and why are people taking issue with an interracial couple’s decision to partake in it?

Premiere of TriStar Pictures' "Jumping The Broom" - Red Carpet
Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images

What does the phrase mean?

The phrase “jumping the broom” refers to a custom that sometimes takes place during wedding ceremonies.

It literally involves jumping over a broom – the act itself is a very literal one.

But it’s what the broom – and the act of jumping over it – represents that has become such a hot topic of conversation in recent days.

Unfortunately, as with many historical traditions, its roots are not 100 per cent clear. However, that doesn’t mean it’s not worth looking into.

Catherine Burriss (C) looks at "wedding
Photo credit should read ROBYN BECK/AFP via Getty Images

Where did the tradition of ‘jumping the broom’ or ‘besom’ originate?

References to “broomstick marriages” first started to appear in England in the mid to late 1700s. Describing a wedding ceremony as a broomstick marriage came to mean it was of doubtful validity. As in, those who couldn’t marry legitimately would take part in a so-called “broomstick marriage”.

According to Rebecca Probert’s book Marriage Law and Practice in the Long Eighteenth Century, the first time anyone printed the phrase was in the English translation of a French text. The year was 1764.

The original French phrase literally translated to a “marriage on the cross of a sword”, but the translator rendered it as a marriage performed “by leaping over a broomstick”.

Either way, it described the hasty marriage of two eloped persons. The phrase popped up a few more times in 18th-century texts, such as a 1774 edition of Westminster Magazine and The Times newspaper. Charles Dickens used it in Great Expectations.

Charles Dickens
(Original Caption) Photograph of Charles Dickens (1812-1870) seated. Undated photograph.

What connects ‘jumping the broom’ to slavery in the United States?

In some African-American and black Canadian communities, marrying couples will jump over a broomstick at the end of the ceremony.

The earliest documented examples of people of African descent “jumping the broom” in the US are from the 1800s, African diaspora studies professor Tyler Parry told The New York Times earlier this year. He wrote a book on the subject.

In the US, enslaved Africans mostly had no legal right to marry before the American Civil War of 1861-65. So they jumped the broom as a way to symbolically recognise their unions.

Brooms were readily available, Brides adds, to slaves in the US. Even after slavery officially ended, if a marriage officiant wasn’t available, black people in the US would sometimes jump the broom in lieu.

People still do it today

The New York Times interviewed four black couples who incorporated the tradition of jumping the broom into their weddings earlier this year.

“We would be remiss”, said Tucson native Abram Jackson, “if we did not honour our ancestors who jumped the broom to confirm their love against all odds.

Barba, Cabelo & Bigode | Trailer oficial | Netflix Brasil

Barba, Cabelo & Bigode | Trailer oficial | Netflix Brasil

“In many ways, it was the most important element of the ceremony.”

“The legacy of African-Americans choosing commitment in a time when they were seen by America as three-fifths of a human being is why it was important for us,” pastor Ms Cudjoe-Wilkes told the newspaper.

Jumping the broom is also an English and Welsh Romani custom. Welsh Romani couples would marry by eloping. They would then jump over a branch of a flowering common broom. The word “broom” refers to both a flower and a household implement. Or, alternatively, they’d jump over a besom made of broom. 

Brides adds that, in pagan wedding ceremonies, the broom handle is said to represent the male phallus, while the bristles represent female energy. So it is a custom that occurs in several traditions.

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