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Tuesday, January 20, 2009

You can take your head out of the hollerin' pot, mama

In slavery times, slave holders did not want their slaves going to their own churches. They wanted to control whatever theological ideas were expressed. Their message was that God ordained slavery and any resistance to it was contrary to the will of God. Messages from the New Testament were particularly dangerous, so slaves were encouraged to memorize and recite the genelology sections of the Old Testament. That is where "counting the dozens" originated.

But the message of the New Law was not successfully suppressed, and black churches were formed and found ways to keep alive the messages of hope and freedom, sometimes in codes right in front of the slaveholders, but often in secret. It was common for slaves to hold church services at secret times in secret places. Accounts tell of slaves sneaking off to remote places on the plantations in the dark of night. Part of the service involved the confession of sins, and included the sins committed against the slaves as well as any they might commit. Because such sessions got noisy, it became the custom to make a big, iron pot a part of the service. The people would put their heads in the pot, cover up with a blanket, and pray away to God about how miserable life was. The did a lot of reporting on the sins perpetrated by Ol' Master, his family, and friends. One account records that one woman who worked in the plantation house tended to hog the hollerin' pot so that other people did not get a full turn at unloading their grievances.

When the Rev. Jeremiah Wright was shown on video tapes excoriating white society in Obama's former church, he was preaching in the tradition of the hollerin' pot. And in having made his grievances made public, he showed the need for a hollerin' pot. Good, white people don't like to have their transgressions against other people aired in public.

The inauguration of Barack Obama into the office of President has been one that has celebrated all the steps toward freedom for all people that the country has taken since Lincoln. Personally, I was a supporter of Obama when he ran for the U.S, Senate, and I recall being in Winnipeg one February Saturday when he announced his run for the presidency on the steps of the Capitol in Springfield, Illinois. All those messages shouted into the hollerin' pot resonated, and Obama's announcement suggested that the work started by Lincoln could be resumed in earnest. But I had doubts. My mother-in-law said that the people of America would never elect a black man president. As I heard some leaders in the state Democratic Party voice racial attitudes, I thought that her statement might well be true.

The celebration of Barack Obama's inauguration has a sense of liberation, as if we can retire the hollerin' pot. Hope, freedo;m, equality, and justice have once again been put at the fore.

The hollerin' pot can be put in the museum. But it should be carefully kept and maintained in case we might need it again.

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Aberdeen, South Dakota, United States