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 (

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.


  1. Thank you for the history lesson.

  2. Ah, yes, Django unchained to kill as many white people as possible to satisfy two centuries of hatred, al la Charles Bronson revenge cinema. And Jamie Foxx explaining on Saturday Night Live what a thrill it was as a black person to kill as many whites as possible. Guess I should start packin' heat as the Django wannabees come out to play, just like Bernie Geotz did on the New York subway when he emulated Bronson.

    Tarentino has always been a face for blaxploitation movies under the guise of "homage" or exploring race. Spike Lee has correctly called him out on exploitation of both race and violence.

    White people described in the Django audience of one theater were no doubt laughing at the word "nigger," knowing that the expected Tarentino vengeance killings would soon follow for those hopeless and ignorant souls in the movie that used the word. Blood lust requited.

    And, while Tarentino makes a Hollywood commercial condemning the violence in Newtown, he blithely ignores his role in the promotion of violence in our society as a whole. "The movie is just good fun," he was quoted.

    Perhaps the Watch Night services can be a reminder of the many forms enslavement takes.

  3. Very nice post. Very educational. Thank you!

  4. Reverend Turner of Mt. Level did a good job telling the story of watchnight. You would have been pleased.

  5. You can't know where your going if don't know from where we came! Lest we forget. Thank you for this story.

  6. Slavery is as American as apple pie. As bad as it was the truth is that is the way this country was built. America should get over it self righteous indignation and accept America as America was and is.

    No amount of sugar coating will erode the facts that a lot of so-called good white folks used the institution of slavery to further their position in society. That was perfectly acceptable and legal. America continues to be the greatest violator of human right as any nation on the face of the earth including Egypt.

    It is what it is.