Henceforth and Forever Free
I must admit, that in so many ways, I still do not get the Emancipation Proclamation. I have studied it for years, written about it extensively in my forthcoming book, taught it in my class, and explained it to my sons but inside I still do not get it. It is hard for me, with my 21st century lens, to look back at this pivotal moment and really understand what it meant for enslaved men, women, and children to realize that freedom had finally come. I think that it is hard for me to understand freedom because I do not really understand what it means to be enslaved. I understand it intellectually but beyond that, no matter how much I try, I cannot fully comprehend what it means to be “owned” by someone. Slavery was an albatross, a weight around the neck that kept a person bound to their plantation owners from their cradle to their grave. By 1863, slavery had been the way of life in America for more than 200 years and countless numbers of black people had lived and died without ever experiencing a day of freedom. I have been thinking a lot about this since September 22, when I started mentally counting down the days until the 150th anniversary of the release of the Emancipation Proclamation. There are times when I can barely contain my emotions as I think about how my ancestors (those who knew about the document) must have felt as they counted down the days. It must have been difficult, as the country was not completely sure if Abraham Lincoln, a moderate antislavery Republican who had struggled both privately and publically with the issue of enslavement, was going to officially release the Proclamation. Even though this was both a political and a social statement, Lincoln did not intend for it be viewed as a pro-black benevolent document. It was a war tactic and he even waited until after a Union victory to first announce it. This did not matter to the black community because they defined it and viewed it as much more than just that. As historian Jacqueline Jones explains it, emancipation “was not a gift bestowed upon passive slaves by Union soldiers or presidential proclamation; rather, it was a process by which black people ceased to labor for their masters and sought instead to provide directly for one another.” I define it as the first wobbling step towards agency, that moment when they stopped thinking of themselves as property and began to think of themselves as people.
With all of the tension and the uncertainty of the moment, on December 31, 1862, black and white America counted down the minutes until the Proclamation would either take effect or be removed. Many spent the Watch Night in prayer and turmoil, while others celebrated, confident that freedom was at hand. My father is a pastor and I grew up attending Watch Night Services. I remember sitting in the cold pews at 11:50 pm as the deacons would slowly start to dim the lights. My mother would pull us out of our seats so that we could kneel on the floor as my father would lead the church in prayer. He would always begin by giving thanks for freedom, mentioning both the Emancipation Proclamation and the ending of Jim Crow. He would remind us that we came from people who chose to survive despite the overwhelming odds against them. “We are a strong people,” he would say, “and freedom wasn’t just given to our ancestors, it was something that they took as well.” The lights were turned on right after midnight when my father would say, in a resounding voice, that we were, “Free. At. Last.” Matilda Dunbar, the mother of poet Paul Lawrence Dunbar, described it in similar terms when she noted that on the day she heard she was free, “I ran ’round and ’round the kitchen, hitting my head against the wall, clapping my hands and crying, ‘Freedom! Freedom! Freedom! Rejoice, freedom has come!’”
I have been trying to explain freedom to my sons who now participate in Watch Night Services and watch me cry as I struggle to understand what it means. I realize that I may never really get it but every year on December 31, I will pause and give thanks for it and for never having experienced a day without it.