By Dr. Kaye Wise Whitehead
On December 31, 1862, the night before the Emancipation Proclamation was to be released Black and White people around the country were watching and waiting for freedom to arrive. They were unsure about whether Abraham Lincoln was going to go forward with his emancipation plan and if he did go forward, they were not sure of what this would portend for our nation. Earlier that year, Lincoln, in a speech given in Antietam, Maryland, released a controversial document that was designed to provide the Confederate states with one final opportunity to either join the Union or risk the immediate emancipation of their slaves. Even though this was a war tactic and was not designed to provide freedom for close to four million enslaved people, it was seen as the first step, as a daybreak that would end a very long night of despair. On that night as people waited for the freedom word to go forward, Frederick Douglass at the Tremont Church in Boston, Massachusetts, spoke about the significance of this moment and how it was an answer to the agonizing prayers that had gone up for centuries. Douglass—who had been born enslaved in Tuckahoe, Talbot County and worked as a caulker in Baltimore—spoke a bit about his life in Maryland. He remembered how he fought to learn how to read; how his mom would walk hours at night to spend a little time with him; and of how he dreamed and planned to be free. He recognized early on that freedom was something that you had to be willing to sacrifice for, to break the law if you needed to and to die if you had to. He understood that freedom is something that stands on the other side of struggle.
It has been 153 years since that first Watch Night and there are days here in Baltimore where it feels like we are still watching and waiting for freedom to arrive. It has been a long year, one where we have struggled and mourned; sacrificed and fought. We have watched our city come to the edge of darkness and slowly pull its way back. We have cheered when things have gone right and consoled ourselves when they did not. My father used to say that when you fall, make sure to fall on your back because if you can look up then you can get up. This year, we have fallen so many times, and yet, every single time, we look up and then we get up. We are truly a city of survivors and because of this, 2019 must be the year where we usher in a daybreak to end this long night of despair. This is the year where we must craft a new narrative. We need to show the world that the strength of our city is uniquely tied to our ability to mobilize our best and brightest minds. Baltimore City is our Holy Ground and our blood, as Frederick Douglass once said, is mixed with the soil of this land. We helped to build this city and it has survived because of our sacrifice, and it is on its way to greatness because of our brilliance. Despite everything that has happened this year, Baltimore still stands tall like a light house, always there, never moving, never giving an inch to help us to guide our tiny ships through the raging waters of injustice and inequality, despair and defeat, back to the shore.
We must remember to mark this occasion for future generations to record that something happened at the end of 2018 and there was a shift in the social and emotional climate. This is a powerful moment because this will be the year where we will reclaim our neighborhoods and reclaim our children. We understand that like the best teachers we sometimes have to take a moment to reteach America some of the key things that they often fail to remember about Baltimoreans: that we are resilient and failure for us has never been an option; that we are brilliant and we can effectively mobilize the collective strength of our genius and strategically plan for a better tomorrow; and, that we are knitted together so that our collective strengths support our collective weaknesses. In 2019, we will, as James Weldon Johnson once wrote, “sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us. (We will) sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us.” And when we fall this year, we will make sure to fall on our backs, because when we look up, we will get up.
Karsonya Wise Whitehead is the #blackmommyactivist and an associate professor of communication and African and African American studies at Loyola University Maryland. She is the host of “Today With Dr. Kaye” on WEAA 88.9 FM and the author of the forthcoming “Dispatches from Baltimore: The Birth of the Black Mommy Activist.” She lives in Baltimore City with her husband and their two sons.
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