City Paper is not for tourists
February 15th is not a day well-known outside of the African-American
community as a special holiday, but it is just that to the 12 percent of the
U.S. population who are of African-American descent. The Tea Ceremony
was thought to have been developed by house slaves during the final decades before Emancipation.
No one knows how the Tea Ceremony got entangled with Valentine’s Day
celebrations, but by the mid-19th century many of the customs that are
associated with this ceremony were already in place. February 15th was thought to be the day of celebration because the slaves were working on Valentine’s Day
for their masters’ own ceremonies. The day after, with a lighter work load and leftovers, the house slaves initiated a tradition around the day of rest.
—From an invitation to an
African-American Tea Ceremony
Back in the winter of 1992, I felt like throwing a party, and since I couldn’t afford much food, an afternoon tea seemed to be a good idea. I decided on a Valentine’s Day theme because it was the middle of February. With only a few plates and glasses in my possession, I felt a need to explain to people why they had to bring their own teacups. As a writer with an overheated imagination, I suddenly found myself inventing a faux historical backdrop for the party, and before I knew it I was hosting an African-American Tea Ceremony.
The first mention of slave Tea Ceremonies comes from New Orleans, which had a sophisticated slave population with a taste for elegance and glamour. Many slave masters passed their old, broken china to favored slaves. The original ceremony required that the hostess (teas were invariably given by women) send the man of the house out to borrow china teacups and mugs from her neighbors.
I honestly thought no sane person would take it seriously. The first invitations were mailed 10 days before the party. “You made this shit up,” one of my friends chuckled, adding that she would be delighted to attend. “You are a sick, sick woman,” another friend said, as she too expressed her intent to join our tea.
The third RSVP threw me. “Oh my God,” my friend Teresa sputtered into the phone. “I had no idea about this thing. Did you run across this at Howard? I’ll bet you had to go to the Schomberg in New York to do the research. I am so proud of you.”
When I told her I had invented the whole thing, she was pissed. “I don’t think it’s funny,” she said. I figured anyone with a head on her shoulders would clock the tea—rife as it was with historical holes—as a phony. Teresa was just a ditz. But when my mother proudly sent copies of the ceremony to friends and relatives, she started receiving fawning phone calls requesting more information about this almost-dead tradition. A few wanted to have their own Tea Ceremony the following year.
In the early days of the Tea Ceremony, the request to borrow a cup made by the man of the house served as a covert invitation to the Tea, since the slaves were not allowed to have such gatherings. The request usually came just after noon on the fifteenth.
The first celebration of this allegedly ancient custom was a smash. Fifteen of my nearest and dearest attended the tea. They all loved the party and enthusiastically embraced the idea behind it; they encouraged me to make the African-American Tea Ceremony an annual tradition. The next year, I sent out 40 invitations and waited for the results. A friend called; his girlfriend, a schoolteacher in the D.C. public school system, wanted more information about the tea, so she could do a class presentation during Black History Month.
By the third year, my phone started ringing in January with friends wanting to know the date of the tea and whether it would be OK to bring friends. Most of my black friends adored the tea and asked for copies of its history to hand out. They were proud of the tea. Even those who had initially been upset by the subterfuge became tea converts. Last Saturday, my parents, 30 of my friends, and I gathered for my annual celebration of the African-American Tea Ceremony. The tea has become a response among me and mine to an unspoken desire to celebrate our heritage in our own way and in our own time. Its arrival during Black History Month is probably just coincidence.
Not long ago, I mailed a packet of writing samples—including the invitation to the African-American Tea Ceremony—to a prominent local poet for critique. When the poet called to discuss my work, he honed in on my invented history.
“It’s not funny,” he thundered. “It is making fun of black people and our history and you are laughing at our expense.” I licked my wounds as he proceeded to trash the rest of my writing. Hey, invented or not, I liked the African-American Tea Ceremony.
I love the tea, in part because it reflects parts of my youth and my upbringing in the bourgeoisie. The tea part came from those cotillion parties I rejected when I refused to be a debutante like all the other nice, middle-class black girls in Richmond. I’d have a tea, but on my terms. The idea of having the man of the house issue the invitation came from the old Southern superstition about New Year’s Day: For good luck, the first person across your doorstep had to be an unmarried male. My parents told me stories of bachelor uncles who traveled from house to house one New Year’s Day, formally crossing the front doorstep. The covert meetings derived from my mother’s stories about slaves singing “Steal Away” to signal when a slave was about to escape and to distract the unknowing masters with song.
The African-American Tea Ceremony became my yearly party. As my invitation list became longer and longer, I simply warned people to remember when they read the story of the ceremony that I was a writer. I told a few people the truth, but even some of them thought I’d just revived the party, not created it from scratch. What was making black folks fall for this thing so completely? Come on, a holiday built on broken, borrowed china? The tea was full of historical contradictions, but the story prevailed. I underestimated our need for tradition. It is this desire that gave birth to Afrocentrism.
To my friends, the African-American Tea Ceremony is like The Velveteen Rabbit. It didn’t start off real, but through faith it has become real. With my party each year, I celebrate my history; I celebrate slaves who outwitted their masters and survived with their dignity intact; I celebrate Mummy and women like her who refused to allow anything but correct American English to be spoken in their home, not out of a wish to emulate whites, but out of an ardent respect for education; I celebrate Daddy and men like him who showed me the special love black men have for black women; I celebrate Howard and Morehouse and Spelman; I celebrate Jack and Jill and debutante balls, which showed me that little black girls can grow up to be princesses, too.
Since most of my black friends were hard-core members of the black middle class like me, I think the Tea Ceremony touched a part of ourselves we rarely saw celebrated. The black bourgeoisie was the maligned nemesis of the black power movement. Our values were seen as “Uncle Tom”-ish, and most of us hid. Coming of age in the ’70s, many of my black friends struggled, just as I did, with how to be black enough, whatever that meant. I believe the Tea Ceremony touched on our black middle-class guilt.
I’ll be honest here: Kwanzaa just doesn’t speak to who I am and the things to which I relate. Traditions are part of who you are, they’re not acquired later in life. Maybe if I grew up with Kwanzaa, it would be easier to celebrate, but I didn’t. The Tea Ceremony seems to speak to people like me; its familiarity in spite of its falsehood is comforting. If you want to have your own celebration, feel free. But stay off my back about inventing it—they made up Kwanzaa, didn’t they?
The African-American Tea Ceremony is currently experiencing a revival, a wonderful thing for a tradition that all but died out during the sixties and the seventies.CP