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Opinion | The Power of Watch Night, the Black Church’s Vigil for the End of Slavery

The church, at its best, stood vigil, making a case for a better way to be human than a utilitarian ethic that used our shared trauma to justify exploiting other suffering Black people. It argued that the same God who opposes institutional racism travels all the way down to personal evil, resisting the ways that we harm one another. By arguing for both societal change and personal transformation, Watch Night suggests that justice and righteousness are not so easily separated.

Juneteenth, which recently became a federal holiday, remembers that news of the Emancipation Proclamation did not reach all of the enslaved right away. There were some who knew that freedom was on the horizon and those who had no idea of the momentous changes shaking American society. It was the work of those who knew about the newfound freedom to contend for those who could not fend for themselves. We are not free until everyone is.

Each New Year’s Eve reminds us that the work is never finished. Douglass knew that. He said, “The slave having ceased to be the abject slave of a single master, his enemies will endeavor to make him the slave of society at large.” Because of his prophetic imagination and the painful lessons of history, he saw that something like Jim Crow was on the horizon. He knew that law and custom would endeavor to return us again and again to servitude.

What is the solution to that ever-present threat? Douglass said, “The price of liberty is eternal vigilance.” Each generation of Black folks has taken up this watch keeping, guided by a moral compass that transcends the limited imagination of the powerful. We have done so out of respect to the generations whose vigils — filled with prayer, thanksgiving and sanctified dissatisfaction — won us the freedoms we now enjoy.

It’s been years since I attended a Watch Night service. I miss them. A largely white university experience, my wife’s military service in Japan and graduate studies in Britain took me far from the Black churches that kept watch. I spent too many years with those who do not remember the deadly slave ship, the dehumanizing auction block or the daring midnight escapes to the North with God as the only hope.

Now that I am back in a Black church in the United States, I’m looking forward to introducing my children to the practice of keeping watch, after the Covid pandemic allows our local church to resume its full schedule of services. Hopefully, Watch Night will connect them to a heritage too precious to lose.

On the edge of those New Year’s Eves at church, time felt thin. We seemingly stepped inside history, if only for a moment, to join with the great cloud of witnesses that lauded Black freedom and mourned those slaves who died before freedom came. Too many New Year’s Eve gatherings know only celebration. They do not know how to lament the lives lost or how to inspire the commitment that comes from honoring their legacies. Those parties are too free of our histories.

There are a number of New Year’s resolutions on the horizon. I am sure we will fail at most of them. But I hope that we do not fail to take up the responsibilities handed to us by our ancestors. We must in 2022 take up the watch so that the coming generation might inherit a more free and just society.

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