Monday, December 31, 2012
The lost meaning of Watch Night Services rooted in a history too painful to remember
2012 is coming to an end. Thank God for that. It’s been a brutal one. I can’t wait for my Happy New Year.
That’s the mindset of many who will flood churches across America tonight in wait of the beginning of a new year. It’s an old tradition called Watch Night among those who attend historically black congregations. Folks show up to get rid of the baggage from the year ending while celebrating the gift of new beginnings.
People enter sanctuaries grieving lost opportunities and to shed themselves of the misery that followed them for 12 months. It’s a powerful tradition that evokes hope among those who believe in a God of another chance.
Lost in the ritual is the mention of an important historical connection. The first Watch Night Services were celebrated in black communities in 1862. Then they were known as “Freedom Eve.” Black slaves and free blacks came together in churches and homes all across the nation awaiting news that the Emancipation Proclamation had become law. It was at midnight on January 1, 1863 that all slaves in the Confederate States were declared legally free.
The news was received with prayers, shouts, songs of praise and the type of worship familiar among those who believed Moses would come to set the captives free. Tonight marks the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. Most ministers will fail to mention the connection as they give God praise for the beginning of another year. Pastors will mention the importance of beginning the year in church rather than a club. Congregants will testify about God’s multitude of blessing through the year, but few will mention the law that put an end to slavery.
Who will mention slavery tonight?
It’s a difficult subject to discuss. How do you talk about slavery without opening wounds too deep for people to endure? Does the black church’s hesitance to connect the Watch Night Service with that night in 1863 reflect a movement away from the history of black faith? Why has it become so difficult to talk about slavery?
How can you discuss historical pain without being enchained by the memory?
How do you talk about slavery? Quentin Tarantino took a stab at it in his movie Django Unchained. In taking a stab, people are taking stabs at him.
“Why did hundreds of white audience members in Brooklyn feel at ease snickering at the banter of Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson), the “nigger”-hating house slave in blackface who loved his owner, Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), and protected the plantation where he was enslaved, the perversely-named Candie Land?,” Darnell L. Moore wrote in his special on Mark Anthony Neal’s blog NewBlackMan (http://newblackman.blogspot.com/2012/12/django-unchained-or-what-was-so-damn.html).
Why were white people laughing? Does the movie require the use of that dreaded word – nigger? What is implied when a white director tells the story of black pain? Is something lost due to who tells the story? Why does it matter?
Could it be that the tension involving Django Unchained unveils a deeper angst with our telling and hearing the story about slavery? Maybe that’s why the history of the Watch Night Service is omitted from the annual wait for the coming of a new year. It’s too painful to remember, or maybe we simply no longer want to dig up the mess from 150 years ago.
Talking about race is complicated business. Recent commentary regarding race exposes white America’s unease with race. In the minds of many, racism no longer matters, and black people should stop pulling that race card when the stuff on the table isn’t about the color of our skin. They claim black people are overly sensitive.
White people aren’t alone in their anxiety with discussing race. What are the implications associated with failing to mention that night in 1863? The Watch Night Service has morphed into a sanctified ritual that abates the memory of former slaves. Our children aren’t taught about the excitement when slaves heard a law was passed to set them free. After years of praying and waiting, God had answered their prayers.
The night is minimized to a reflection of the happenings over the past 365 days, rather than God’s presence since 1863. We don’t talk about slavery. We don’t share the story because, in the minds of many, that’s old news. Having that discussion takes us back to a time too painful to endure. That’s old news.
So, what does it mean when we forget the stories and rituals of those who came before us? The Book of Judges records a message. “After that whole generation had been gathered to their fathers, another generation grew up, who knew neither the Lord nor what he had done for Israel” (Judges 1:10).
Bad things happen when we forget to acknowledge those who paved the way. History has many lessons. By remembering, we learn from mistakes made. We learn that faith carries us when nothing else is left to show the way. We learn that prayer changes things, even when you’re confronted by an army and the mean ways of people determined to keep you in chains.
The clock is ticking. The year is coming to an end. We wait for new beginnings – just like those slaves we anticipated word of a law that would set them free. Waiting is about hope in a better day. We can’t forget that hope.
Sometimes it’s hard to talk about the past, but talking is better than forgetting.
Tarantino has unchained Django. Some may not like the message, but at least he’s talking.
As for me, I’m still waiting for word regarding freedom. Tonight, I’ll watch until midnight.