Academic journal article Generations

African American Elders, Cultural Traditions, and the Family Reunion

Academic journal article Generations

African American Elders, Cultural Traditions, and the Family Reunion

Article excerpt

There is a larger meaning-beyond the fun and the good food-to African American family reunions: these gatherings are important vehicles for preserving the past and reinforcing positive patterns for future generations.

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.

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. …

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