Stony the road we trod
I think of their bare feet, ragged coats, scarred backs.
Bitter the chastening rod
I think of their thumping heartbeats alternating between desire and fear.
Felt in the days when hope unborn had died
I think of their hope that he would sign it, the fear of that great unknown -- freedom -- if he did.
Yet with a steady beat
Just a few more days … one more cord of wood to chop, hog to feed, quilt to stitch.
The Civil War had been raging for nearly two years, the Union faring badly both militarily and politically as it struggled to identify its true intent. The mere announcement of the Emancipation Proclamation on Sept. 22, 1863, had given the war new impetus: ending slavery.
Have not our weary feet
Word of Lincoln's intent would have been condemned by the planters in parlors, at dinner tables, church yards. Unlike modern historians and textbook apologists, the enslaved had no doubt that the war was about them. What else could it have been about if the planter class going to war to preserve their way of life, which depended on slavery?
Come to the place for which our fathers sighed?
Looking forward to Christmas in 1862 would have been fraught with so much more excitement than the usual inter-plantation visits, year-end feasts, frolics, nightly church meetings and 'shouts.' Dec. 31, 1862 was the 'night unlike any other night' as the enslaved people watched and prayed, prayed and watched.
We have come
Dawn didn't bring relief. Lincoln had slept poorly the night before and spent New Year's morning greeting the public as was the custom. After shaking hands for hours, his hand was sore and shook uncontrollably. Aware that what he was about to do was momentous, Lincoln waited until he knew his signature would be firm.
Over a way that with tears have been watered
It was afternoon on January 1, 1863, 150 years ago, by the time Pres. Abraham Lincoln put his hand to sign the Emancipation Proclamation, the first nail in the coffin of America's peculiar institution, chattel slavery.
We have come
People, especially in the North and among abolitionists, had waited at churches and halls all day and greeted the news from the telegraph with roars of jubilation. Newspapers in cities across the country couldn't print the news fast enough.
Treading a path through the blood of the slaughtered
At Port Royal in South Carolina's Georgia Sea Islands, already under Union control, the proclamation was read to the former slaves. Upon hearing it, there was a silence and then slowly, in cracking voices that gained force, they began to sing "My Country 'Tis of Thee…"
As word spread, some dared to walk off the plantation, looking for shelter in this new freedom with the Union Army. Others waited for the Union soldiers to come.
Even then, the law wasn't universally acclaimed.
The Emancipation Proclamation called for black men to join the Union Army, and more than 200,000 fought for the Union and would become instrumental in the Union victory. (The Colored Troops, as they were called, were the ones that routed Confederate General Robert E. Lee in the battle that preceded surrender.)
Out from the gloomy past,
For decades, African Americans held Freedom Festivals honoring the various days when slavery ended. In an old church prayer guide printed in the 1930s, I found that there were special prayers for Emancipation Day, which was January 1. Even by then, the commemorations had started to fall from favor, in part because of African Americans' desire to assimilate and detach themselves from the lingering stigma of slavery and racism.
The 1960s brought the Civil Rights Movement, Black militancy and the Black Arts Movement, all of which contributed to the development and celebration of Kwanzaa.
I know I'll incur lots of ill will by saying I never warmed to Kwanzaa, even though I longed for some cultural or religious celebration for African Americans that acknowledged a history that didn't begin and end with slavery.
Till we now stand at last
But doesn't the end of slavery warrant acknowledgment? The most common celebration in the United States is Juneteenth, which started in Texas. In 2007, even the United Kingdom held parades and fetes celebrating 200th anniversary of the end of the slave trade.
Where the bright gleam of our bright star is cast
Perhaps on the last day of Kwanzaa this year, we can take a special moment in remembrance of what the dawning of that day, the day of Jubilee as the enslaved called it, meant to our foremothers and forefathers and what it therefore means to us.