This letter is part of our "Letters to Our Ancestors" project. In celebration of the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, we've asked black political leaders, writers and critics to share their own letters to our forefathers. With these letters, we hope to look back on the progress our community has made and give thanks to those who helped pave the way.
As we come upon the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, many will look to Abraham Lincoln as a hero for his courageous and contested decision to sign the historic document. But I would like to honor you, the enslaved. Your heroism in the face of unspeakable and unfathomable odds at the hands of "free" Americans is why many are allowed to dream today.
I feel a certain level of uneasiness even while writing this letter because I question my own sense of audacity. I exist in the world today because you prevailed. I remember hearing and reading the rich stories of triumph, but now I wonder what selfless leaders like Harriet Tubman, or visionaries like Frederick Douglass, might think if they were to look down upon America the beautiful, today. I wonder if Americans of the present, including myself, are living up to the standards of bravery, selflessness, and valor so beautifully exemplified by all that endured the horrific circumstances that was slavery.
The Emancipation Proclamation signified "freedom," a newfound type of freedom that Black people in America hadn't experienced before its ratification. I want to praise you, however, for being "free" long before the chains of oppression or the paper contracts that enslaved you were ever removed. Many would like to focus on the obsessive physicality of slavery, but ownership of the mind was likewise a real objective of slave masters. And your greatness, my ancestors, was evidenced in your ability to create your own "freedom" long before the Emancipation Proclamation was signed. You've taught us that self-determination is more than a principle; it's a way of life.
The gifts of culture that you've created and left for us highlight how "freedom" of the mind cannot be caged in regardless of what institutions others might create for you. We honor and celebrate the importance of family every time a couple "jumps the broom" at a wedding. We use our voices to rattle all the past and present chains of oppression when we sing Negro spirituals. And we come together in love, family and fellowship to feast upon food created to soothe even the most broken of souls. During your darkest moments and against the wishes of everyone you survived. While everyone around you prayed that your spirits would fade you thrived. And because of your courage, I'm able to become all that you imagined.
Your history, which is American history as James Baldwin noted, gave life to this nation and will forever be engrained into the fabric of a country you've helped to build. Your sacrifice will bind us all for eternity. We must always remember how much you have given to this nation, including your lives, and we must celebrate you on this day, Jan. 1, 2013 and your contribution to the ideas of freedom and change. Your work is over and America has witnessed with blinding clarity how your freedom was created through love. We now have the opportunity and responsibility to care for our brothers and sisters; to erase the distance that keeps Americans from first seeing and then loving one another; to lend a helping hand to rescue each other from the multitude of oppressions we face daily -- from racialized mass incineration to HIV/AIDS to low graduation rates.
The words of many Americans, who vehemently deny your contributions to the creation of this nation disappoints me because they disrespect you. In addition, the lack of action by our government to legislate specific policies to further create equal opportunity for all who live in America, betrays everything you've endured and everything you prayed this country would be. But I know your faith is steady and through your faith many will find the strength to never stand idle in the face of tyranny and flourish despite the aversion of others.
Thank you for always believing in the idea of America, where every (wo)men is created equal and thank you for creating and surviving in an America, where I, and others like me, can now exist as free.