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Black reunions have deep cultural roots
The Washington Post
African-American multigenerational gatherings are hardly a new fad. "They date way back, probably to Africa, to the concept of village gatherings," according to Ione Vargus, professor emerita at Temple University and director of the Family Reunion Institute.
"There is a natural tendency among people in the [African-American] community to come together, swap stories, devote time to bonding," she explained in an interview.
Stephen Criswell, a University of South Carolina professor who has researched the sociology of African-American get-togethers, said the legacy of slavery most likely contributed to the reunion tradition. "So many families were divided and dispersed in the antebellum years," he said. "The tradition of regrouping grew out of that period and has continued — and grown — ever since."
Sociologists agree that Alex Haley's 1976 novel "Roots" was a strong catalyst. The story that traced a family's legacy back to Africa inspired a generation of African Americans to connect with their broad base of relatives.
Although there are no statistical data, anecdotal evidence suggests that the current wave of African-American reunions started soon after Sept. 11, 2001, by the account of Criswell and other specialists. "Everybody has felt a need to reaffirm family ties as a result of that event," said Vargus.
Since then, reunions have become more sophisticated, multidimensional and, in many cases, grander. Once hosted in private homes or churches, they are now most often held in luxury hotels. Special reunion Web sites and customized T-shirts are also common. Some families form nonprofit associations and use the funds raised to offer scholarships, buy real estate or assist family members in need.
Vargus said that the divisions, rifts and dueling factions that plague all families do not often interfere with African-American reunions. One reason, in her view, is the strong religious base of most black families.
"Reunions are often heavily infused with spiritual messages," she said. "And that helps the family get through whatever tensions exist, at least long enough for the reunion."
Although totals vary according to the venue and events included, Reunions Magazine estimates that the per-person cost of reunions, including travel, ranges from a few dollars for a basic potluck to more than $1,000 for a more elaborate affair.
The current interest in reunions has brought a spate of guides, cookbooks, Web sites and other resources offering advice, and tourism officials in several cities are making a special effort to help families with reunion organizing.
Among cities, Atlanta may be the most popular in terms of helping families plan reunions. One big reason is the counsel offered by the Atlanta Convention & Visitors Bureau. It holds three two-day seminars a year on family-reunion planning and offers some families financial assistance to attend. Last year, the Atlanta CVB says it helped more than 130 African-American families plan reunions.
Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company