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The Legacy of the Celebrations

The January 1 celebrations and the speeches that were made on these occasions — and later published — were important. It was the first time that a black celebration produced written texts. As they addressed themselves to a black audience, the speakers were freer than eighteenth-century petitioners to forcefully articulate their opinions and criticisms.

These events, however, created controversy, not only with white society but within the African-American community as well. Parades, in particular, seen by some as affirmations of freedom and manhood, were often decried by black leaders as profane, disrespectable shows that helped reinforce stereotypes of blacks and invited white derision.

Why did the commemorations disappear? Perhaps people realized that the event they were celebrating was not what they had envisioned. In his 1814 oration, Russell Parrott spoke of the "partial abolition" of the slave trade. Africans were still arriving in the country on slave ships.

Between 1808 and 1810, an estimated 8,000 people were forced onto these shores. An additional 4,000 - perhaps more - landed before 1822 and another few thousand before 1860. They were a vivid reminder that the nation had not lived up to its own laws. One might argue that these illegal arrivals were all the more reason to turn January 1 not into a celebration but into an appeal for the genuine eradication of the international slave trade.

But times had changed. The hope that the demise of the international slave trade would quickly be followed by the abolition of slavery itself had been crushed. The Deep South was, on the contrary, strengthening the "peculiar institution" with the spectacular development of the domestic slave trade that sent 1.2 million enslaved African Americans from the southeastern states to the Gulf States.

In the end, the celebration of an event that had little real substance in the midst of the continued enslavement and displacement of hundreds of thousands of people might just have seemed derisory. Nevertheless, although they did not last long, the celebrations were significant in the African-American experience, as they redefined African and African-American history and culture and promoted political action and the preservation of memory.

Sylviane A. Diouf
Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture