Passivity isn’t going to cut it if things are to change in 2020.
Many Detroiters spent New Year’s Eve in church at watch night services, which have become a staple in the black community. Instead of going to clubs or house parties, the faithful gather in a sanctuary to reenact that New Year’s Eve in 1862 when enslaved Africans huddled together to wait for President Abraham Lincoln to sign the Emancipation Proclamation.
Well, that’s what we believe we’re doing when we celebrate watch night, but this version of events isn’t entirely true. First, watch night is not the invention of the black Christian community. Moravian churches near what is now the Czech Republic held New Year’s Eve watch nights in the 1700s to reflect on the past year and voice hopes for the year to come. And John Wesley, founder of the Methodist faith, is said to have held watch night vigils during each full moon.
When it comes to the antebellum watch night on freedom eve, scholars agree it was unlikely that slaves gathered on plantations on Dec. 31, 1862 to await news that Lincoln had signed the proclamation at midnight. Can you imagine masters allowing enslaved blacks to gather and pray for their freedom in the middle of the Civil War? Not hardly. Their freedom celebrations would have to wait until the traitorous South was defeated in 1865.
Watch nights did happen on freedom eve, but they were largely held above the Mason-Dixon Line, as Northern blacks gathered in anticipation that their shackled kin would be freed by Lincoln. And while that impending freedom may have felt like a holy act of God, it was, in fact, an act of war. The proclamation specifically says that the freeing of slaves in Southern states was “a fit and necessary war measure for suppressing said rebellion.” Realizing that emancipation would wreak havoc, Lincoln freed the slaves in order to hasten the South’s defeat.
Here we are in 2020, once again pawns in the war against traitorous forces. Russians have paid off the Republican leadership, installed a puppet president and taken control of a social media propaganda machine. They have targeted our young, black people – being “woke” means refusing to vote. It has been a quiet, insidious attack that threatens the nation that we built with black blood and treasure.
Just like 150 years ago, blacks again hold the balance of power in our democracy. According to the Center for American Progress, “A return to 2012 levels of African American voting would flip four states – Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin – and give Democrats a 294-244 majority in the Electoral College.” In the 2018 midterms, black voters swung elections to Democrats across the country.
But there’s a difference between watch night 1862 and watch night 2019. Today, we are on the brink of a civil war ignited by racism, classism and treasonous oligarchs. But this time, we don’t have to be the pawns – we can be the power. We don’t have to spend the night before an election on our knees, hoping that a white benefactor hears our prayers. We can organize, demand, protest, register and vote.
“Long before any Russian hack, the American electoral system was compromised by hate and fear,” said the Rev. William J. Barber at his 2017 watch night service at his Metropolitan A.M.E. Church in Washington, D.C. “They wouldn’t be working so hard to get us to bow if they weren’t afraid of the power we have when we stand. We may be headed into some fiery times, but bowing down, falling down, standing down, looking down is not an option. We have to go into the new year standing up.”
Our polling places have been closed, our people have been erased from voting rolls and the Voting Rights Act has been gutted. Voter suppression is rampant. We’ve been gerrymandered out of our voices and criminalized out of our liberty. But, as blacks in America, we’ve been in this place before. In fact, America has never been willing to share democratic ideals with its darker brother.
But that doesn’t mean this democracy is not ours. We have to remember that our ancestors’ blood has soaked this soil and our hands have built this nation. As African Americans, we are on the cusp of a new freedom eve. We can watch it roll in on our knees, or we can be vigilant every day of 2020, turning watch night into action, prayers into power, hopes into change.
Desiree Cooper is the author of Know the Mother.