A Resource for Athens Area Families

More Than a Backyard Barbecue: African American Family Reunions
By Tracy Appleby Harper
November/December 2004

Former UGA Director of Minority Services Dr. Leslie Bates (back right) with his immediate family in Ocala, Fla., for Christmas in 2003

Each summer, thousands of African Americans pile into cars, on trains, or hop on airplanes, traveling hundreds or even thousands of miles to be a part of their family. Planning for these reunions, which often include extended family and a fun location, can begin months in advance.

The family is the root of African American culture, and family reunions are what strengthen those roots. The black family reunion has the characteristic of a movement as each year, more and more families hold their first reunion. For many black families, the reunion is the most anticipated time of the year. With family members coming from all over the country, many do whatever it takes to be there!

The tradition of reunions goes back to Africa and the love of family. Although Africa is a vast and diverse continent, one similarity at the center of African tradition was the family, which was also the religious, economic, and political unit encompassing a wide circle of extended family. During slavery, women often took care of children not their own, and many slaves protected each other in spite of tribal or language differences. When slavery ended, women and men went about trying to put the family back together. These stories of former slaves trying to locate their families are often told at reunions.

African Americans survived the worst of circumstances. Their survival is due to the fact that they helped each other, that they took care of each other, that they extended themselves not only to blood relatives but also to others. The extended family was crucial. Raising others’ children became a natural phenomenon in African American life. Bonsondo Bayindu, originally from Saginaw, Michigan, says “My extended family is just as close and important to me as my nuclear family. “ She believes the family reunion cements these ties because “it gives a sense of unity.”

So, how do these reunions start? Many African American reunions often start at funerals. African Americans often attend funerals even if they have not had contact with the deceased person in years. Family members are so happy to see each other that they talk about getting together for a happy occasion. Someone agrees to organize and the reunion starts. Sometimes property brings families together. Families learn that they are heirs, and in trying to settle the legal problems, find other relatives that they didn’t know existed.

Most reunions are a three-day or longer event when families gather, usually in hotels or some other facility, and have a set program along with a variety of activities. They usually follow a particular format. Friday night is informal with getting-to-know-you exercises and hospitality. Saturday is filled with a variety of activities leading into the night with a banquet and more activities. Sunday is worship service and departure. Chance Williams, a University of Georgia student from Thomasville, says that his family’s reunion is in a different city each year, with his two favorite spots being Canada and Atlantic City. His favorite activities at the reunion are the fashion and talent shows.

At the reunion, you get to know your family. You get to see family members that you didn’t even know you had. “The reunion provides a sense of belonging to a group of people who will love and care for you unconditionally,” says Tameka Gude of Monticello. She views the family reunion as central to cementing the ties of most black families because it “brings everyone together – young and old.”
“ Stories are shared that will be carried down for years and connect the family forever,” says Gude.
“ The world is on the move and everyone is busy making a living. So, it is imperative that the family gets together at least once a year to relive the good times and remember those that have gone on,” says Inga Bonner, mother and teacher from south Georgia who resides in Hull. Bonner’s reunion was in Youngstown, Ohio, this past 4th of July.

African American family reunions also provide growth and development. At the reunions, many families have developed a scholarship fund. Some families engage in fundraising to help with funerals, births, and so on. Endowment funds are set up and whenever a baby is born, each family sends a set amount to the treasurer and an endowment is started so that when that child goes to college, there will be money in that child’s name. Networking the talent in the family is also common. Some families have many people in the trades. If they need a carpenter or electrician or some other work done, they call on a family member and pay them.

Central to cementing the ties of most black families is the family reunion. “Reconnecting,” “reviving the legacy,” and “finding the rest of me” are what family reunions are all about. Family reunions are our road maps from the past and our guides for the future.

Tracy Harper, an Independent Distributor for Homemade Gourmet, Inc., is an Athens native and graduate of UGA. She, and her husband, Michael, have one child.



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