This January 1 marked the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation.
The original purpose for the document core to President Abraham Lincolnâ€™s presidency may have been to free slaves; or it may have been solely a strategic move to decimate the Confederate troops stronghold in the South and win the Civil War. Its purpose was probably a little bit of both. Regardless of Lincolnâ€™s intent, my ancestors named the day of Lincolnâ€™s signing of this historic document Jubilee Day. Many African Americans continue to celebrate Jubilee Day with a New Year’s Eve church service called â€œWatch Night Service.â€
I grew up in the tradition. Every December 31st there was a mad rush to clean the house, cook a pot of black-eyed peas for good luck, and call folks to tell them that, if God wills, youâ€™ll see them in the New Year. Then weâ€™d prepare for the most important event of New Yearâ€™s Eve, the â€œWatch Night Service,â€ which always started at ten oâ€™clock that evening, and ended at midnight with us stepping into a new year.
This New Year’s Eve many folks joined in on the celebration: Boston’s Museum of African American History celebrated the sesquicentennial of President Abraham Lincoln signing the Emancipation Proclamation with a concert by the Handel and Haydn Society Chorus and the story of Boston’s role in this historic event. The Huffington Post marked the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation with publishing Â “Letters to Our Ancestors, â€œ by African Americans.
In celebration this historical moment I was asked what gifts my enslaved ancestors passed on to future generations to assist us in our continued fight for freedom. While clearly there are many, inarguably, one of the greatest gifts my ancestors passed on to African Americans is their use of the Bible as a liberation tool. And for many African Americans, even today, will contest their Emancipation Proclamation is the Bible.
The Bible, with all its inconsistencies, continues to have moral authority in the African-American religious community. Functioning as a moral text, the Bible is used as a subversive tool to form and to frame a democratic moral order.
King is gone from us now and we’re in a new century with the election of Barack Obama in 2008 as our country’s first African-American president and his reelection in 2012. My ancestors who built the White House could have never imagined that one of their progenies would one day occupy it.
My ancestors were happy about the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, but they also were prescient about our continued long and arduous journey toward freedom, which is why they passed on to us their talking-book and it’s still talking for us today.