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Do You Know? The Roots of Family Reunions

Gina Page, co-founder of AfricanAncestry.com | 4/26/2013, 9 p.m.
Gina Page with Rick Kittles, associate professor at the University of Chicago's Department of Medicine (Africanancestry.com)

"It's a family affair. It's a family affair." - Sly and the Family Stone

This month begins a season-long focus on family with Mother's Day, Father's Day and then the yearly Family Reunion. Let's take a look at how our family traditions extend from our African roots.

Did You Know? In most African cultures, the family represents kinship, an extended group of relatives, economic strength and political power. The family is considered a clan that promotes values such as unity, love, support and respect. Some of the more familiar traditions include a fervent respect for elders, rites of passage, systems of inheritance based on lineage and marriage as a contractual agreement between families, not just the bride and groom.

When we were taken from the shores of West and Central Africa and brought to the Caribbean and the Americas, we lost everything. We lost our names, our languages, our religions and our families were torn apart. As enslaved people we experienced a continued assault on the Black family by slaveholders who separated and sold families and controlled our ability to marry and even procreate. Resilient, we reached back to our roots and created extended families. Those new families included aunties, uncles, cousins and those we just called aunties, uncles and cousins.

Did You Know? The African American family reunion was born after Emancipation. Once slavery ended, people sought out their displaced family members, putting out announcements for family members to gather and reconnect. These "reunions" were emotion-filled events, critical to the rebuilding of the Black family.

We feel the impact of this history on our families today. When we try to trace our family's roots, there are no records of us as people until the 1870 Census. Often, elders don't want to share the painful experiences of the past that serve as our only historical records. Family reunions allow us a space to strengthen identity, pass on family history, share traditions, salute personal and family accomplishments and to share family resources.

Did You Know? Many family reunion rituals tie directly back to our ancestral traditions. That family reunion t-shirt is a way to express a shared family identity that we had when we all lived in the same compound. Honoring the matriarch and patriarch of the family fosters intergenerational communication that we had when elders were part of the household. The family tree display connects the present to the past and records the family history. And, the family scholarship can be seen as a form of inheritance paid in advance.

How does your family celebrate? What rituals and traditions does your family reunion include? We'd love to hear your stories. Please share them with us at doyouknow@africanancestry.com or on facebook.com/africanancestry.