The word jubilee comes from the Hebrew “yovel,” meaning a “trumpet blast of liberty.” It was said that, on the day of liberation, the sound of a ram’s horn would ring through the land. These days, I hear the sound of that horn while walking with my kids through the streets of New York City, while protests continue here, even amid a pandemic, as they have since soon after May 25th when a police officer put his knee to George Floyd’s neck and robbed him of his life. I hear it when I speak with homeless leaders defending their encampments amid the nightmare of Covid-19. I hear it when I meet people who are tired, angry, and yet, miraculously enough, finding their political voices for the first time. I hear it when I read escaped slave and abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass’s speech on the eve of the Emancipation Proclamation.
In the summer of 1995, when I was 18, I started visiting Tent City, a temporary encampment in an abandoned lot in northeast Philadelphia. About 40 families had taken up residence in tents, shacks, and other makeshift structures. Among them were people of various races, ages, and sexual orientations, all homeless and fighting for the right to live.
My mom contracted polio when she was 14. She survived and learned to walk again, but my life was deeply affected by that virus. Today, as our larger society attempts to self-distance and self-isolate, my family has texted about the polio quarantine my mom was put under: how my grandma fearfully checked my aunt’s temperature every night because she shared a bedroom with my mom; how they had to put a sign on the front door of the house that read “quarantine” so that no one would visit.
In March of 1968, as part of a tour of US cities to shine a light on poverty and drum up support for the recently-launched Poor People’s Campaign, the Rev Dr Martin Luther King Jr visited the northwest Mississippi town of Marks. He saw a teacher feeding schoolchildren a meager lunch of a slice of apple and crackers, and started crying.