As I’ve done for at least the last half of my life, I spent New Year’s Eve at church with my husband and one of our two daughters.
That’s a particularly special time for me because it marks the end of the old with God, the one who saw me safely through to yet another new beginning. In the African-American tradition, we call that observance Watch Night, a time to celebrate our freedom from slavery.
As the night wore on, as President Barack Obama’s name and that of his wife, Michelle, was invoked, I was reminded of how far we’d come.
Neither of them were there physically, but you could almost feel their presence as just the mention of their names caused members to rise in applause. We are still proud that America put a black family in the White House, and prouder still that their tenure there was free of scandal and, yes, drama.
But there was an undeniable mix of relief and weariness, too.
For most of his presidency, Obama faced what many would consider a mostly uncooperative Congress.
No one would argue that his presidency was perfect. It certainly had its challenges. Nevertheless, he named two women — Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan — to the Supreme Court. He ended the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. He established 23 national monuments and protected public lands. He expanded overtime pay for 4.2 million workers making under $47,476 per year. He gave us Obamacare, providing health care coverage to some 2 million Americans who didn’t have insurance.
Those were big moments, but putting partisan politics aside, here’s what I especially appreciated about the Obamas.
They softened the lens, if you will, on African-American families who are often seen as dysfunctional.
They were examples of the American dream, bootstrapping and overcoming obstacles, proof that black families can’t be reduced to any common denominator.
They were well educated. They worked hard and took care of their children. They were proud of their blackness. They loved each other.
Then last February, the month we set aside to celebrate black history, I was warmed to see on TV a meeting between the president, Michelle Obama and Virginia McLaurin, the 106-year-old retired seamstress at the White House.
“I tell you, I am so happy,” she said, looking up at Obama before turning to the first lady. “A black president, yay, and his black wife.”
Nearly two years earlier, McLaurin had submitted a petition to the White House asking to meet with the president.
“I’ve never met a president,” she wrote. “I didn’t think I would live to see a colored president because I was born in the South and didn’t think it would happen.”
Few of us did, which brings me back to Watch Night.
Love Henry Whelchel Jr., professor of church history at the Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta, told me once that while the African-American Watch Night is a celebration of freedom, it did not begin that way. It started as a night of expectation.
In the early months of the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln’s primary goal was to preserve the Union. On Sept. 22, 1862, Whelchel said, Lincoln threatened that if the Confederacy did not stop fighting and return to the Union by Jan. 1, 1863, he would sign the Emancipation Proclamation.
So on Dec. 31, 1862, black people who could gathered in churches from Boston to South Carolina to await news of the signing.
Sometime around 11:55 p.m., legend has it that in Tremont Temple Baptist Church in Boston —- where many prominent abolitionists were gathered — a man started running down the aisle. It's coming! he yelled. It's on the wire. It's coming. When the clock struck 12:01, someone shouted, God may not come when you want him, but he's always on time. Lincoln had signed the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing all slaves in Confederate states.
“That was our jubilee,” Whelchel said. “It was a very exciting time.”
On this watch night, we celebrated both the start of a new year and the president we never thought we’d ever see. We felt at once grateful and, yes, still excited about what God had done.
And I’d venture to say we felt like dancing much the way Mrs. McLaurin danced when she met the president and his wife back in February. She hadn’t anticipated ever seeing a black president, but here she was dancing with him during his second term in office. That’s what I call the substance of things unseen.
Or as Obama might say, the audacity of hope.
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