More Than a Backyard Barbecue: African American
|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
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
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
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
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.