Despite some ominous, misery-loves-company-ass-predictions, my wedding planning process and my actual wedding day went very smoothly. (Thanks in large part to a groom who didn’t really care what I did and the leadership of my Jill of all Trades sister.) If anything, the whole thing exposed some characteristics in other people. But that’s another story...
If I could point to one hiccup, it would have to be the fact that I was supposed to have dancers from South Africa perform at my reception. But that didn’t happen. And honestly, I blame slavery.
You’re likely wondering, ‘Girl, what does slavery got to do with your wedding?’
Allow me to explain.
This past May, three months before my August nuptials, I went home to Indianapolis to get things in order before I came back for the week of the wedding. While there, I booked the space for the rehearsal dinner, where we would have both sides of our family, many of whom had never met before, mix, mingle, eat and be merry.
If any part of my wedding caused me headaches, it was this damn rehearsal dinner. Coordinating with people in America and South Africa and finding a caterer that wasn’t trying to rob us or be shady in the process proved to be quite the task.
So I was happy when my mother told me that our former neighbor had an event space she rented out.
The space, Sinkor Event Center, looked great, it was affordable, it came with tables and chairs; and most importantly, we knew she was an honest person. After we put down the deposit, our former neighbor, who is Liberian, called my mom and told her that she recently housed an event for a family that had South African dancers perform.
My eyes immediately lit up. This would be the perfect way to surprise my husband, integrate his culture into the festivities, and bring an element of uniqueness to my wedding. So in May, I called the dance leader and we began working together. Initially, I planned for them to perform at the rehearsal dinner but I realized that something as bomb as dancers should be seen by all my guests. I arranged for them to walk my husband and I into the reception space.
After that week in May, I fly back to New York and continue living my life: going to work, planning this wedding, trying to enjoy the summer. In the course of those three months, I speak with the dance leader on a couple of occasions. We talk about her team coming to the wedding rehearsal to plan out their course of action, how many people will participate, payment and the like. She sent me a video of what the performance would look like, based on another group’s work, and told me I could pay her when I got back to Indianapolis.
In the meantime, I decided to mention the dancers, in passing, to my husband. We were having a conversation with my parents and sister, running down the timeline of the wedding day, when I brought it up. I should have known he wasn’t listening when there were no follow up questions, no discussion, just a slight nod and an umm hmm
Cut to mid August, I’m back in Indianapolis and it’s time for me to pay the dancers. We met at the library across the street from my house. This is the first time we’re seeing each other in person, so we engaged in the customary small talk.
In the midst of the conversation, the leader asks, “What’s your husband’s name?”
I take my time and try my best to pronounce “Tshepo.” (From the day I met my husband, he introduced himself as Soils. So that’s what I call him.)
Their faces drop immediately.
In my self-centeredness I assume the look signifies disapproval at my inability to pronounce my husband’s name.
Then with expressions that were a mix of curiosity and concern, they ask, “Is he Zulu?”
The truth is I wasn’t entirely sure. What I did know was that he told me he his family spoke Zulu.
The dancers, who told me that they were Zulu, seemed comforted by my answer. I Cash-Apped them the $360 fee and went our separate ways.
The lead dancer left me with some farewell words, “Try not to stress out. Something’s bound to go wrong but everything will be okay.”
Anyone who’s ever planned a wedding has a similar piece of advice to offer. So it certainly wasn’t the first time I’d heard that sentiment. Still, something in my spirit pinged.
Something was going to go wrong. And in a matter of minutes, I would learn that that something was the very dancers I’d just paid.
I put that foreboding feeling behind me, excited about another checklist item completed. I was so excited,
I decided to call Soils and tell him what I, his thoughtful and inclusive wife, had done.
“Babe, I just paid the South African dancers who are going to be at our reception.”
The first words out of his mouth sank my stomach.
I wish I was exaggerating. But one, my husband is dramatic and two, there was no way I could have calculated the gravity of my error.
“What do you mean no? What’s wrong with dancers? I thought it would be a nice way to represent your culture?”
“I don’t want that.”
“Well, I’ve already paid them so they’re coming.”
“Can you cancel them? I really don’t want that.”
At this point I had to get off the phone before I said something too cruel.
“You’re really hurting my feelings so I’m about to hang up now.”
For a minute, I thought about crying but I realized I just didn’t have time for it. I met with these women at 3:15 and by 3:45 Soils was asking me to cancel the whole thing.
Minutes later he texted me asking for a video of the group to at least see what they had to offer.
Still in my feelings, I responded with attitude, “Why? So you can tell me you hate it?”
At this point, it still hadn’t occurred to me that in the months that I’d been working with these women I hadn’t seen any actual footage of what they could do on the dance floor and the group didn’t have a name, as far as I knew so I couldn’t Google them. And despite still being very upset, I realized that perhaps booking group neither I nor my husband had seen to represent him at a wedding might not have been the best idea.
Then came some more unsettling revelations.
My husband is not Zulu. And the dancers clearly are. Here I was trying to represent him with a tribe of people he didn’t even belong to. In my mind, I figured they’re South African, my husband is South African. We’re good.
It couldn’t have been further from the truth.
Not to mention, when the group finally sent a video of themselves performing, it left a little to be desired.
Soils made sure he told me and even in my irritation, I couldn’t deny that.
Through text, because I still wasn’t ready to talk, Soils wrote: “I don’t know what my family will think. They took sooooo much time making sure the outfits were Suthu and mom pushed for that. My family would really want a say in how we are represented. But maybe some would be chill and ok. This is not a good thing to surprise them with…I thank you so much for trying to do a good gesture and represent us but I’d rather they not be involved.”
Slowly, I was starting to see that this wasn’t going to work. My husband wasn’t Zulu. And having my South African family fly thousands of miles to be confronted with sub-par representations of a culture that wasn’t theirs just wouldn’t be cool.
Now, before you’re wondering how the hell I thought my husband was Zulu when he’s Suthu, the following text messages will explain. Essentially, I want y’all to know it wasn’t my fault.
At the end of all this, Soils told me that because I knew that he was South African that was enough. But it’s really not. When we started speaking on the phone again, Soils hipped me to something I hadn’t considered. And this is where slavery comes in.
“You know it’s kind of sad but because of slavery, Black Americans really don’t know which countries they come from and so they don’t know their ethnic groups either. So maybe that’s why you didn’t think it would be a big deal having strangers from South Africa dance at our wedding.”
Damn. The accuracy of it all.
Sure, my husband didn’t tell me he was Suthu—which is a problem-- but it also never even occurred to me that these dancers might not share that culture. I heard South African and thought ‘same.”
American Black people have shared cultural expressions, dances, food, language etc because we’ve had to create and rebuild from nothing. The traditions that were supposed to be ours were largely stripped away. And this hodge podge we’ve created here in America is beautiful, powerful the world over and unique. Still, it was born from unimaginable, unspeakable trauma and painful ignorance.
If you’re like me and think about the ramifications of slavery all the time, you’re not surprised about the ways it shows up in our everyday lives.
What I didn’t expect is that my lost history would find a way to reveal itself around my wedding day.
Thankfully, my Suthu/Swati South African family did have an entrance prepared for us. And it, not hired strangers, was one of the most memorable moments of the day.