The first time I attended a Passover Seder I was thirteen. As an African American, celebrating one’s deliverance from slavery made sense to me. For some of my family slavery was a taboo topic. My great-grandmother refused to talk about it. My grandmother denied that anyone in her family had been a slave. But my great-aunt Irene, who never let details get in the way of a good story, talked freely. Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation had set my great-grandmother free.
Just as the Jews celebrate their deliverance at Passover, we Americans celebrate our democratic principles on the Fourth of July. But I believe that if we African Americans are to overcome our sense of ambivalence about America, more is required. Since President Obama is given to evoking Lincoln, I suggest that he follow Lincoln’s lead and proclaim, as Lincoln did in 1863 and 1864, a day of national humiliation, fasting and prayer.
Why a Fast Day in addition to Martin Luther King Jr. Day?
The religious act of fasting was once a national custom, a custom which ended following Lincoln’s assassination. What I propose is not just another holiday but rather a day of contrition and somber reflection. America is a great nation built on aboriginal land, African life-blood, Chinese coolie labor, Japanese internment and Mexican migrant labor.
Just as we honor our principles, presidents and veterans we need to honor all those who were sacrificed. If on such a day we together acknowledge and grieve our failures–past and ongoing–might not Americans set out the next day to make it right?
Over fifty years ago James Baldwin wrote that “the history of the American Negro problem is not merely shameful, it is also something of an achievement. For even when the worst has been said, it must also be added that the perpetual challenge posed by this problem was always, somehow, perpetually met.”
Obama’s presidency attests to the correctness of Baldwin’s insight and conclusion that “it is precisely this black-white experience which may prove of indispensable value to us in the world we face today.” Americans resonated with Barack Obama’s refrain, “Yes, we can,” because we believe change is always possible and that hope will prevail. What began as the American Revolution has been and remains an ongoing revolution; one that saw slaves freed and women enfranchised.
A National Fast Day would serve as a sobering reminder that the American Revolution is yet unfinished and that the future rests in our hands.”
Mark Morrison-Reed, a retired Unitarian Universalist minister, is author of “In Between: Memoir of an Integration Baby.”