New Year’s Eve holds important significance in the life of African-American churchgoers, because it is about creating a new life in the New Year. As a child who grew up in the tradition, there was always the mad rush every December 31st to clean the house, cook a pot of black-eyed peas for good luck, and call folks to tell them if God wills you’ll see them in the New Year.
Then we’d prepare for the most important event on New Year’s Eve, the Watch Night Service, which always started at ten o’clock that evening.
Putting on your Sunday best felt strange, especially if New Year’s Eve fell on a weekday, but you knew the significance of that day as folks hurried to complete their chores.
Many black churches across the country celebrate Watch Night services. They can be traced back to December 31, 1862, also known as “Freedom Eve,” when African-American slaves came together across the nation to await the good news that President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation had finally become law.
On that following day, January 1, 1863, a new life began for us even as the Civil War was still going on.
During Watch Night Service, the minister would always remind us of the trials and tribulations of the year we were about to leave behind. But the minister would also tell us that the New Year was the first day of new beginnings, just like our enslaved ancestors saw it. And at every service I attended as a child, when the clock struck midnight, the people applauded, cried, dance and sang.
What hope and what inspiration it was to know that in spite of the year just lived, especially if it was fraught with pain, violence and tragedy, a new year comes in which we can free ourselves from the year past.
But by freeing ourselves, the minister would always admonish us, we had to create it, because it would never come freely at the hands of our oppressors.
Fast forward to 1965: one of the years in American history during which racial bigotry escalated to the national stage. In February of that year, Malcolm X was assassinated during a speech at the Audubon Ballroom in New York City. In March, thousands of marchers, led by Martin Luther King, Jr., complete the Selma to Montgomery march to dramatize voting rights denied to them in Selma. But two days earlier, Alabama state troopers beat and teargassed many of the demonstrators as they tried to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge en route to the state Capitol. And in August, six days of rioting erupted in the Watts section of Los Angeles, ignited by police brutality.
In the face of this violence, African Americans had to create a new plan of action, and we did.
In 1966, we became more proactive, and created programs to suit our needs and sensibilities in the face of unrelenting violence. Bobby Seale and Huey Newton formed the Black Panther Party in Oakland, Calif., and Maulana Karenga, then professor and chairman of the African American Studies Department at California State University in Long Beach, created the cultural festival Kwanzaa.
As a celebration of the first African slaves who arrived here in the New World in 1619 and were finally freed in 1865, Kwanzaa, the annual seven-day celebration, pays tribute to who we are as a people.
Who we are as an oppressed people, however, does not ignore who we are as an oppressor of people.
While many African-American lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered people cannot celebrate Watch Night Services with our faith communities because of our sexual orientation, many us have creatively incorporated the spirit of Watch Night in Kwanzaa.
On the sixth day of Kwanzaa, New Year’s Eve, the principle celebrated is kuumba, meaning creativity. Creativity is essential for the life of any people, and it has played a salient role in the life and courage of African-American people.
Without it, African-American music, dance, scholars, theologians and activists would have never been born. As a progeny of this African-American creative legacy, I’ve learned to create a life for myself in the midst of a raging war, whether it’s homophobia in the black church or it’s racism in the queer community.
And so enters 2002, a year to be shaped by war while we see our needs and concerns pushed to the back burner. We must create a life for ourselves, one that speaks to our needs at this particular time.
If we don’t create a plan of action in this new year to address our needs, not only will we have participated in our own death and invisibility, but we will have not really crossed over into a new year, one that gives us creative hope, creative agency, and creative courage. Instead, we will remain stuck in 2001.