“Next week be the fourth of July and us plan a big family reunion outdoors here at my house,” says Celie, the main character in Alice Walker’s The Color Purple. On the day of the reunion family members analyze the custom this way: “‘Why us always have family reunion on July 4th,’ say Henrietta, mouth poke out, full of complaint. ‘It so hot.’” “‘White people busy celebrating they independence from England July 4th,’ say Harpo, ‘so most black folks don’t have to work. Us can spend the day celebrating each other.’” Among the other attendees are two women who sip lemonade and make potato salad, noting that barbecue was a favorite food even while they were in Africa. The reunion day is especially joyful for the two women, who had been thought lost until their appearance at the reunion, where they are joyfully reunited with Celie and other family members.
Extended and elaborated southern families plan reunions around celebration, abundant good food, shared responsibilities, simple recreational activities, and above all talk. Although summer is the most popular season and the Fourth of July a popular date for family reunions for both black and white southern families, reunions can happen at any time. Some families have them annually, others have them on a schedule best described as “every so often,” and still others have them only once or twice in a generation’s lifetime, depending on some organizer’s initiative.
Like the indefinite date for family reunions, there is an inexactness as to who constitutes “family” for each gathering. Some families invite only the descendants of a given couple and those descendants’ spouses and children. Others invite the eldest couple’s brothers and sisters and their children plus in-laws and some of the in-laws’ relatives. Some gather households that have only a vague bond of kinship—people who are “like family” because of strong friendships. There is inevitably a logic of kinship and affection to each family reunion, and such a party is hard indeed to crash.
The impetus for a family reunion, if it is not an annually scheduled event, may be the birthday of an elderly family member, a holiday, a wedding anniversary, or an achievement such as paying off a home mortgage. Sometimes a family holds a reunion for a homecoming of one of its members, as in the case of Eudora Welty’s novel Losing Battles, which is a family reunion story focused around the day a son and husband return from a stay at Parchman, the Mississippi state prison.
Families often gather in someone’s home, though summer picnic versions are commonly held in state or city parks. Motels, hotels, or restaurants host them, as do clubhouses and community centers, but by far the most popular settings are homes and then churches. “Dinner on the grounds” in the churchyard, with food burdening tablecloth-covered makeshift tables, is a happy memory of family reunions in the minds of many southerners.
The occasion offers time to catch up on relatives’ news and gossip, perhaps to transact a little family business, to settle—or stir up—family disputes, and generally to reestablish connections. Southern family reunions usually have no programs. Other than an occasional game or swim or boat ride, the main activities are conversation and eating. Reunions may last overnight or even several days but most frequently occur over only one meal.
The food might include barbecue with baked beans and coleslaw or fried fish with hush puppies, fried potatoes, and a salad. A restaurant meal might be ordered, but in a great many cases family reunion food is a large and generous potluck dinner where each participating household brings versions of its best offerings of food and drink—fried chicken, ham, meat casseroles, rice dishes, cooked garden vegetables, fresh raw vegetables, potato salad, gelatin salad, seafood salad, homemade rolls and breads, cakes, pies, cookies, jams, preserves, pickles, watermelon, iced tea, and lemonade. A time for eating, conversing, and sharing each other’s company, a southern family reunion is a special occasion for reaffirming family ties.
- Alice Walker, The Color Purple (1982)
- Eudora Welty, Losing Battles (1970)