‘Black Voices’ Community Conversation: Watch Night

As 2020 comes to an end, some African American churches are preparing for their Watch Night services, which are likely to look different this year because of the coronavirus pandemic.

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Watch Night is a religious service held in many African American churches on New Year’s Eve. Also known as Freedom’s Eve, the tradition celebrates the anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, which freed the Black people who were enslaved in Confederate states during the Civil War. 

On Monday,“Chicago Tonight: Black Voices” host Brandis Friedman moderated a community conversation about Watch Night as part of a monthly series that coincides with two new weekend programs from WTTW News: “Chicago Tonight: Latino Voices” and “Chicago Tonight: Black Voices.”

Community and religious leaders joined Friedman to discuss the significance of Watch Night and New Year’s Day celebrations to the Black community. 

On Dec. 31, 1862, African Americans — freed and enslaved, in the North and the South — met in barns, churches, private homes and fields awaiting news of the enactment of the Emancipation Proclamation, said Dr. Gilo Kwesi Logan, a justice studies professor at Northeastern Illinois University and a historian of African studies and African American culture.

“Think of a people who for some have been enslaved for hundreds of years, or for whom freedom was just a word or fleeting notion or even something to be longed for,” Logan said. “When I think of Freedom’s Eve, I think of a fireball of hope, anticipation, desire and anxiety.”

The enslaved African Americans weren’t passive, as Logan said the telling of this story too often implies. They were “active participants and instigators in their own liberation, African Americans were watching for the opportunity to fight for freedom,” he said. 

Today, Watch Night is about looking back, and looking forward. The rituals accompanying Watch Night are critical, said the Rev. Waltrina Middleton, executive director of the Community Renewal Society.

“I know in my Gullah community are the testimonies, spoken word … there was the call and response, and even the music had significant meaning,” Middleton said. “I had learned and came to have a better understanding as I got older. I know a celebratory song was, ‘I’m a Soldier in the Army of the Lord’ and ‘Kumbaya,’ all of these songs had different meanings that had double narratives of celebration, of liberation, and hopefulness as well.” 

Watch Night also includes dancing, said the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, pastor emeritus at Trinity United Church.

“Not just singing and testimony and praying, but dancing,” Wright said. 

Christa Hamilton, executive director of Centers for New Horizons, said Watch Night will have deeper significance this year.

“We’ve survived a lot. This year was very heavy,” Hamilton said. “So, to be on the other side, to make it to Watch Night, I think the significance of that will be great for many of us.”

She said many people will likely carry the spirit of the racial justice movement into Watch Night as well. 

“Thinking about how much more we need to fight … we still aren’t completely free in a lot of ways,” Hamilton said. “We still are not treated equal. So to bring those things to our Watch Night service and the spirit of wanting to continue the fight, but fighting in a spiritual way … I think this year will be much more impactful for us.”

Upcoming Event

“Latino Voices” host Hugo Balta will host our next community conversation at 8 p.m. on Monday, Jan. 25. 

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