by Yolanda Pierce, Ph.D.,
While the nation has been celebrating the 150th Anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, I have been lamenting how this “freedom” document failed to articulate a liberatory vision for formerly enslaved people. Despite proclaiming freedom for the captive, far too many questions remained after emancipation that are yet unanswered: what are the moral, spiritual, emotional, financial, and psychological repercussions and consequences for being free after having known 250 years of bondage?
The “freedom” often accorded to the formerly enslaved included the freedom to continue to serve as an economic underclass, laboring on behalf of of a nation that had already stolen generations of its wealth. The Emancipation Proclamation and its corollary documents insisted that the best path for the newly enslaved was to remain quiet, not cause trouble, and continue the work and social status to which they had been accustomed. Is this freedom? Frederick Douglass reminds us: “Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet depreciate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground.”
So I want to agitate the soil with an important question that we often do not ask about the Emancipation Proclamation: what about the moral and spiritual emancipation of the slave owners? Had they been freed from hundreds of years of prejudice, hundreds of years of denigrating black skin as cursed? Had they been freed from their unwarranted privileges, which they believed was God-ordained based solely upon the color of their skin? If the bodies of the enslaved needed to be freed, surely the minds of the slaveholders demanded equal emancipation, as they willingly participated in a project of human subjugation and genocide.
As Christians, we love to talk about freedom, how Christ has made us free, and free indeed. But it is often talk without substance, because freedom is no easy work:
We cannot talk about freedom without first talking about bondage…and we are urged at every turn to forget that chattel bondage ever existed.
We cannot talk about freedom without talking about mental and psychological enslavement…but we pretend that there are no lingering consequences of slavery still apparent today.
We cannot talk about freedom without talking about reparations for those enslaved…but when you do so, you are labeled as someone still holding on to the wrongs of the past.
As the Lenten season continues, I want to trouble our notion of what it means to be free, to live in a “free” country, to enjoy the “freedoms” of Christian identity – when those freedoms seem divorced from the reality of what Christ calls us to do: to serve the least, the last, and the lost. Are we free, indeed, if in prisons, schools, churches, and institutions all around us, far too many remain in shackles even after emancipation has been proclaimed?