For most people New Year’s is a happy time. A time for reflection on the previous year as well as a promise of golden opportunities to come in the year ahead and as the New Year approaches the mood is festive and jubilant.
For Black Americans the mood and the celebrations are virtually the same as among White Americans. Yet, not long ago and in many areas of our country the reasons for the seasons were very different. Very different indeed.
As we contemplate the old year and embark upon the new, it is important for Black people to pause and remember the plight of our enslaved ancestors who suffered during this time a special cruelty, and endured a searing pain compounded by the constant burden of being a slave.
In many American states had another form of the first of January was the day for hiring additional slave labor for various homes and plantations. It was a day the slaves dreaded for on the second day of the new year they were expected to go to their new masters and thus severe ties with their spouses, siblings, and children.
If the slave refused to go to the new place of bondage and bravely clung to the ties of family and affection, s/he was beaten and whipped unmercifully and then confined to a dungeon until s/he relented.
Those that ran away from their new masters also suffered a terrible fate, for they were whipped until their flesh was cut open and the blood ran in rivulets down their bodies and formed a pool at their feet. After that they were usually fettered in heavy iron chains and forced to labor for endless days in the scorching sun or in the biting cold.
The predicament of the Black slave mother was worst of all. No doubt she stayed up on the eve of the new year embracing and caressing her children and watching their every move while attempting to etch their memory into her being for she did not know which one might be torn from her bosom on the New Year. It might be one of them. Two, three, or it might be all.
As the dawn broke over the horizon she must have trembled at the thought of losing her loved ones; her mind racked with incalculable sadness, apprehension and agony. In the event that her children were sold away to the highest bidder to endure a life of unimaginable torture and utter humiliation, she could be heard to exclaim in anguish for years afterward, "They’re gone! All gone! Why don’t God kill me?"
The oldest slaves had another form of torment to deal with. After a lifetime of labor and dutiful service to their White "masters" and upon being reduced to a condition of weakness from unrelenting labor and mental and physical assaults, they were allowed to starve, abandoned to succumb to illness, or left to the whim of any White that was able to purchase them for a few coins.