Last Monday night, blacks around the United States flocked to church. They waited on their knees. Their eyes were watching God — and the clock. Awaiting the stroke of midnight.
Just as stolen Africans and abolitionists had gathered New Year's Eve 1862, waiting to hear freedom ring. Freedom promised by the Emancipation Proclamation. President Abraham Lincoln's war gambit to cripple the Confederacy by declaring slaves in rebel states "forever free" took effect at the witching hour — New Year's Day 1863.
Ever since, blacks have commemorated that seismic moment with a New Year's Eve (Freedom's Eve) pilgrimage to the Lord's house, a late-night vigil that came to be known as "Watch Night."
Yet, in 2013, Watch Night carried keen resonance. This year marks the 150th anniversary of Lincoln's oft-misconstrued document.
Think the Emancipation Proclamation freed the slaves? Not exactly. Lincoln's martial order — his "act of justice" — conferred freedom only to slaves living in the mutinous states. And it invited the newly freed Americans to don Union-soldier blue.
"Never before had so large a number of slaves been declared free," Eric Foner writes in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, "The Fiery Trial: Lincoln and American Slavery."
"By making the army an agent of emancipation and wedding the goals of Union and abolition, it ensured that Northern victory would produce a social transformation in the South and a redefinition of the place of blacks in American life."
Around the nation, however, hundreds of thousands of slaves remained shackled in border slave states.
A sharp irony, with surprising modernity.
Since Lincoln's time, many blacks have seized that hard-won liberty with gusto. For many, emancipation's legacy underwrote the freedom to strive. For example, this year, the Black-White Equality Index in the National Urban League's State of Black America 2012 report again showed blacks narrowing the education gap.
At the same time, large swaths of the black community remain mired in a modern slavery, shackled by the rusting leg irons of incarceration, black-on-black genocide and fatherlessness.
We can almost recite the numbers by rote. Half of the United States' 2.3 million prisoners are black.
"Among low-skill black men, spending time in prison has become a normative life event," sociologist Becky Pettit writes in her troubling book, "Invisible Men: Mass Incarceration and the Myth of Black Progress."
Lord have mercy.
Meanwhile, too many blacks who haven't been locked up, are getting knocked off — by someone who looks like them. Annually, about 7,000 blacks are murdered. Only 6 percent of the time is the killer someone of another race. Places such as Chicago and Philadelphia are such shooting galleries for black youth that, anymore, we barely blink at the carnage.
And, the outbreak of out-of-wedlock births is epidemic. Too many young black men exercise their freedom to sow their seed upon every fertile plain they survey. A new reality show in the works on the Oxygen TV network, "All My Babies' Mamas," will toast Shawty Lo, a rapper who requires the fingers of both his hands to count the number of women with whom he has fathered children.
Honest, Abe must be whirling in his grave.
In this anniversary year of Lincoln's proclamation, black America ought to revisit this freedom thing. Oh, I'm not wistful for cotton burs and bullwhips. However, until blacks can proclaim freedom from this self-destruction, we'll never be truly free.
And more blacks (hello, Bill Cosby) must be free to speak up about what needs fixing. Blacks must remember that we're free to foster change. Only then will we shed the chains that still bind us.
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