Like Alice Walker’s characters in “The Color Purple,” who got together every year on the Fourth of July because “white people busy celebrating their independence don’t have to work,” we all need a time when we “can spend the day celebrating each other.”
That connection has always been central to the reasoning behind family reunions. The other side of the coin is the fear that the connection is in danger of being lost, which is why, more often than not, family reunions are inspired by brothers and sisters who have drifted apart and who feel some primitive urge to get together again to celebrate what they are and — more importantly — what they used to be.
I can’t say for sure that the South has more of them, but we sure do have a lot, and because we do, we have elevated “putting them on” to what one commentator called “an art form.” Family reunions in Dixie are generally well-planned and often elaborate because they have to be. They are special.
Sure, families gather at other times. Christmas comes with seasonal regularity, but it no longer involves extended families, the primary reason being that it is too much trouble to move “Santa” for the kids.
Families gather at weddings. Like Christmas, these are usually predictable (unless a shotgun is involved). However, weddings create families for future reunions. Their purpose is to celebrate the new, not reunite the old.
Funerals are reunions of a sort, but the very reason for gathering takes the fun out of the occasion.
But a family reunion, a get-together planned well in advance, held at a place that has meaning for those who attend, publicized so that it draws folks from far away who want to re-knot the tie that binds — that has Southern written all over it.
What ‘Roots’ has to do with it
Like so much in Dixie, history has a lot to do with how and why families hold reunions. The pre-modern South was a culture of extended and elaborated families, scattered not too far, but far enough so that seeing each other was not a casual affair.
Whereas in the North a city or town dweller might have parents, siblings and cousins within a few blocks’ radius, in the South, a day’s ride to see another living soul was not uncommon. So families either stayed close at hand (and no reunion was required, since they saw each other every Sunday), or they scattered and needed reuniting.
Scholars have a hard time figuring out just when Southern families began holding reunions, but logic leads to the conclusion that as Southern families spread out across the land and as transportation improved, families began finding ways to get together on a regular basis.
That would make the family reunion a 20th-century affair — mostly, but not entirely, since any rule in the South is made significant by the exception to it.
The gatherings are also celebrations of the links that define each member: the bloodlines. Once it was the duty of the matriarch — the Grandmother or the Aunt (even better, the Maiden Aunt) — to preserve the connections and spell them out for those assembled. Or put them on a chart that reminded author Florence King’s non-Southern father of “kennel papers,” “the stud register” or “the book of the Dead.”
But with Alex Haley’s 1976 novel “Roots,” family history moved out of the matronly shadows and into the light of day.
The African-American family reunion phenomenon
In the aftermath of “Roots,” genealogy became cool, and family gatherings became swap meets where enthusiasts could exchange information on multi-great grandfathers who served with Washington, or was it Lee, or somebody.
The reunions that gained the most from this stir were those held by African-American families. And most of those were held in the South.
Today, African-American family reunions are big business. (Just a cut of the T-shirt sales would move the beneficiary a few notches up any income scale.) Search the Internet for Family Reunions, Southern and more than half of the sites will be maintained by companies catering to black families who want to get together and enjoy it.
In a way, an important way, what African-American Southerners are doing reflects the whole family reunion phenomena down in Dixie.
During the first half of the 20th century, black Southerners left the South in what has been called the Great Migration. They settled in Northern cities, but they never lost their Southernness, and never broke their ties with home. Some died before they could come back, but what they had, they passed onto their children and their children’s children.
And now those displaced Southerners want to come home and connect with what once was theirs.
Which is where the food comes in.
Ah, yes, the food.
Of all the things on display and enjoyed at a reunion — the photographs, the scrapbooks, the family Bible — the most proudly displayed and thoroughly enjoyed is the food. Although the distance some folks travel to get there and the location selected for the gathering often require organizers to have a reunion catered, somehow it just isn’t the same unless someone brings Aunt Jessie’s yeast rolls or Mimi’s red velvet cake.
Of all the senses that stir memory, taste is up there at the top, and since reunions are all about memory, it is understandable that food would rank among the expectations and, often, the disappointments — “it’s good, but not like Mama made.”
Old receipts are hauled out, tried out and the results put out for all to enjoy.
The table spread becomes symbolic of what the family was, and what it has become — a big mound of Uncle Claude’s barbecue, just like he would have made if he was here, up next to a pile of Kentucky Fried Chicken, taken out of the box and put on a platter to fool folks who can’t be fooled.
The old and the new, the sacred and the profane.
And so the family gathers, greets, hugs, talks, eats, shares and, when the day is done, goes back to the world where each lives.
Some reunions are reconciliations, when old family feuds are settled and past differences put aside.
Some reunions are confirmations, when you discover that the cousin who was obnoxious when you were young is obnoxious still.
But most important, these reunions are a reason, an excuse, to celebrate the institution that has always been at the center of Southern life — family. To thank the Lord that you have one. And, maybe, to feel a little sad for those who don’t.