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Reviews | The power of Watch Night, the Black Church’s vigil for an end to slavery


The church, at its best, was watching, arguing for a better way of being human than a utilitarian ethic that used our common trauma to justify the exploitation of other suffering black people. He argued that the same God who opposes institutional racism goes all the way to personal evil, resisting the ways in which we harm each other. By advocating 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 slaves right away. Some knew that freedom was on the horizon and others had no idea of ​​the significant changes shaking American society. It was the work of those who knew the new-found freedom to fight for those who could not fend for themselves. We are not free until everyone is.

Every New Year’s Eve reminds us that the job is never done. Douglass knew it. He said: “The slave having ceased to be the abject slave of one master, his enemies will endeavor to make him the slave of society in general. Due to 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 strive to return us to bondage again and again.

What is the solution to this ever-present threat? Douglass said, “The price of freedom is eternal vigilance. Each generation of blacks has resumed this vigil, guided by a moral compass that transcends the limited imaginations of the powerful. We did this out of respect for the generations whose vigils – filled with prayer, thanksgiving, and sanctified dissatisfaction – have earned us the freedoms we now enjoy.

It has been years since I attended a Watch Night service. I miss them. A largely white college experience, my wife’s military service in Japan, and graduate school in Britain took me away from the black churches that kept watch. I’ve spent too many years with those who don’t remember the deadly slave ship, the dehumanizing auction, or the daring midnight escapes north with God as their only hope.

Now that I’m back in a black church in the United States, I can’t wait to introduce my children to child care, after the Covid pandemic allowed our local church to return to its full schedule of services. . Hopefully Watch Night connects them to a legacy too precious to be lost.

On the eve of those New Years Eve at church, time seemed to be running out. We have apparently made history, if only for a moment, to join the great swarm of witnesses who praised the freedom of Blacks and mourned for those slaves who died before the advent of freedom. Too many New Year’s Eve gatherings only know about celebration. They don’t know how to mourn the lives lost or how to inspire the commitment that comes from respecting their heritage. These parties are too free from our stories.

There are a number of New Year’s resolutions on the horizon. I am sure we will fail in most of them. But I hope that we will not fail to assume the responsibilities entrusted to us by our ancestors. In 2022, we must take over so that the next generation inherits a freer and fairer society.

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