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January 1, a day of beginnings and endings. Imani, Kwanza's seventh and final day: time to renew our faith in the future while savoring the last candle's flickering glow.
A ritual rooted in wisdoms and traditions centuries old, Kwanza was first celebrated thirty years ago. But long before Dr. Maulana Ron Karenga claimed this day for Imani (see December 26) and fifty-six years before it was declared Emancipation Proclamation Day in 1863, January 1 was a day of thanksgiving.
For the two hundred years of our American sojourn, from 1619 to 1808, we had slaved for freedom. Our men had fought in the Revolutionary War, only to see their sacrifices betrayed by American colonists who reveled in their freedoms at the expense of ours. The first bend in the long road to freedom finally neared in 1807 as Congress banned the torturous importation of Africans that was the slave trade. Speaking for the millions of lives consumed by its evils, Absalom Jones, an ex-slave and cofounder of the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church, preached this first African-American Thanksgiving Day sermon the day the ban went into effect--January 1, 1808:
Let the first of January, the day of the abolition of the slave trade in our country, be set apart in every year, as a day of publick thanksgiving for that mercy. Let the history of the sufferings of our brethren, and of their deliverance, descend by this means to our children to the remotest generations; and when they shall
ask, in time to come, saying, What mean the lessons, the psalms, the prayers and the praises in the worship of this day? let us answer them by saying, the Lord, on the day of which this is theanniversary, abolished the trade which dragged your fathers from their native country, and sold them as bondmen in the United States of America.
January 2 marks a milepost in theater history. By the early 1960s, a decade of African-American activism had taken hold of imaginations nationwide. In New York, the nation's theater capital, Broadway producers were hiring all-Black casts to extend the run of successful white shows, but the original plays and ideas of Black playwrights and their ideas were rarely found. The situation made Langston Hughes's twenty-year-old poem "Note on the Commercial Theatre" seem sadly contemporary.
"You've taken my blues and gone," protested Hughes. "You sing 'em on Broadway, and you mixed 'em up with symphonies, and you fixed 'em so they don't sound like me. . . . But someday somebody'll stand up and write about me, black and beautiful, and put on plays about me! I reckon it'll be me myself! Yes, it'll be me." And it was.
Standing up on January 2, 1967, was the vibrant new Negro Ensemble Company (NEC) with an opening production of Peter Weiss's Song of the Lusitania Bogey. Founded by actor Robert Hooks, producer Gerald Krone, and playwright Douglas Turner Ward, the NEC was different from the start. It dated its roots to Ward's 1966 New York Times article, "American Theatre: For Whites Only?" (see August 14). Encouraged by a Ford Foundation start-up grant, the NEC was launched as a repertory company where actors could develop their skills and their range through full-time devotion to their craft; new plays by unknown Black playwrights were nurtured and mounted without the budgetary demands of the commercial Broadway stage.
At its peak, NEC was home to such talents as Rosalind Cash, Laurence Fishburne, Phylicia Rashad, and Hattie Winston. It nurtured teleplaywright Samm-Art Williams of Frank's Place and Pulitzer Prize-winner Charles Fuller, whose NEC-produced play-turned-film A Soldier's Story brought another alumnus, Denzel Washington, to the screen.
On January 3, 1900, the gift of music underscored the promise of a new century. In 1900, Lincoln's birthday was a treasured annual opportunity for slavery's children and grandchildren to celebrate their freedom. As each new Jim Crow law eroded that hard-won freedom, people needed a major celebration in order to renew their spirits and energies for the battles ahead. In Jacksonville, Florida, two brothers--James Weldon and J. Rosamond Johnson--decided to compose a hymn for the occasion. With the premiere fast approaching, they had finished the first two stanzas:
Lift ev'ry voice and sing,
Till earth and heaven ring,
Ring with the harmonies of liberty. . . .
Stony the road we trod,
Bitter the chastening rod
Felt in the days when hope unborn had died.
But James Weldon Johnson, the lyricist, was having a hard time with the third verse. He said, "I paced back and forth on the front porch repeating the lines over and over to myself, going through all the agony and ecstasy of creating. As I worked through the opening and middle lines of the last stanza I could not keep back the tears, and made no effort to do so:
God of our weary years, God of our silent tears,
Thou who hast brought us thus far on our way,
Thou who hast by thy might, led us into the light,
Keep us forever in the path, we pray,
Lest our feet stray from the places, our God, where we met Thee,
Lest our hearts drunk with the wine of the world, we forget Thee.
A month later their hymn, "Lift Ev'ry Voice," was performed by a chorus of five hundred children to overwhelming acclaim. Nearly a century later, it has inspired generations as our "Black National Anthem."
January 4, 1971, provided tangible proof that the voter registration campaigns of the 1950s and 1960s were finally bearing fruit. A century after the Fifteenth Amendment had guaranteed our voting rights, this year marked the first time that the number of African-Americans in Congress exceeded the level achieved in the post-Civil War days of Reconstruction: twelve African-American members of Congress were taking their seats--eleven men and one woman. We'd come this far by faith, courage, ambition, and skill. Running a century-long gauntlet of racist Black codes, grandfather clauses, illegal censures, and outright terror in states North and South, we had emerged on the other side with a healthy respect for our own power.
A moment of reflective rejoicing was definitely due. But no one could ignore the harsh reality. In a nation arguably more than 15 percent Black, only 2 percent of the Congress represented this population. Each African-American congressperson was well aware that his or her presence on Capitol Hill required loyalty and homage to an ideal far mightier than mere politics. Each representative had been swept into Congress on a wave of people who had literally flooded the streets with their bodies and their blood.
Rising to national prominence on that wave, the twelve linked arms and egos on January 4, 1971, to form the Congressional Black Caucus. Because they comprised only 2 percent of the legislature, voting as a block would clearly be their least successful strategy. But as catalysts, they could build awareness and alliances across racial, political, social, and geographical lines. Over the years, the number of Blacks in the House and Senate has grown to thirty-one--still just 6 percent. But the reason and the need for the Caucus have changed little.
As Congressman William Clay once put it, "we have no permanent friends, no permanent enemies--only permanent interests."
People travel the world seeking cures. But before January 5, 1849, who could have guessed that one magic dose would cure a young man of multiple ailments in just minutes! It was a miracle that made history.
From the cut of his clothes to his first-class accommodations, it was clear that the fashionable young gentleman had everything as he boarded a train in Georgia with his trusted slave--everything, that is, except good health. With his face inflamed by a bad tooth, his right arm in a sling, his eyes so sensitive to light that he shaded them with green glasses, and his hearing so bad that his slave had to interpret and answer for him, hotel clerks took pity and spared him the ritual of signing in. Only in Baltimore did a ticket agent challenge the slave's impudence in speaking for his master--until, that is, he took a look at the wretched young man in such dire need of sympathy.
But when the pair got off in Philadelphia, the true nature of the young man's dis-ease became evident, as every ailment was healed by the soothing balm of freedom. Hearing returned. Glasses and bandages became unnecessary. Truth revealed the young white man and his slave to be, in fact, two escaped slaves--Ellen and William Craft, a light-skinned woman and her dark-skinned husband.
When their daring escape was publicized in The Liberator, an abolitionist newspaper, the shock was felt nationwide. Northern abolitionists rushed to hear the Crafts' lectures, and southern planters pushed for the most repressive fugitive slave law ever passed. Although the Crafts settled first in Boston, they later fled to England to avoid recapture. After the Civil War they returned to Georgia, bought a plantation, and founded an industrial school for Black children. Glory Days: 365 Inspired Moments in African-American History. Copyright © by Janus Adams. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.