From Bondage to Booths: Sukkot and Me

As a black person, I often find myself contemplating the intricacies of my identity in the Western world, where many of us have lost direct connections to our ancestral roots. In the context of America, “black” encompasses all shades of melanin, and to me, it embodies a profound beauty – a place from which we can emerge and create, even in the darkest of times.

However, if you’re a black individual in the United States, there’s a significant chance you may have never heard of Sukkot, a Hebrew holiday outlined in the books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy. In ancient Israel, there were three festivals throughout the year, each with its unique significance, occurring approximately as follows on the Julian calendar:

1. Pesach (Passover): This festival, celebrating the Israelites’ liberation from bondage in Egypt, typically falls in March or April (Exodus 12).

2. Shavuot (Festival of Weeks): Marking the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, this festival usually occurs in May or June (Exodus 34:22; Leviticus 23:15-16).

3. Sukkot (Festival of Tabernacles): It’s a time in the Hebrew calendar when we’re encouraged to gather with loved ones, embrace kindness, and revel in life’s simple joys. Central to this festival is the construction of a booth, known as a “sukkah,” where we are meant to spend time, rejoice, and remember the struggles of the Israelites in the wilderness by the grace of God after their escape from bondage in Egypt. Sukkot typically takes place in September or October on the Julian calendar (Leviticus 23:33-43).

As an African American, I approach this scripture with an understanding of its biblical and historical context. I can’t help but draw connections between the Hebrew Israelites and black people, both of whom experienced the harsh reality of slavery. While our experiences may differ, the Bible’s teachings transcend time and speak to all of us who have emerged from bondage and times of living through the wilderness by the grace of God. I, for one, am one such person. All of my four great-great grandparents were born enslaved and lived to see Emancipation. Their names are recorded in the Freedmen’s Bureau, established in the War Department by an act of Congress on March 3, 1865 yet abolished in 1872.

When the Old Testament instructs the Israelites to observe the Festival of Booths (Sukkot), it is to be done so to serve as a poignant reminder of bondage, liberation, and the blessings of God. For African Americans and our ancestors, this holiday carries a parallel significance. It’s a reminder of the trials we’ve endured and the enduring joy that God has granted us.

In essence, we can reclaim and celebrate Sukkot for it resonates deeply with our shared history. Among holidays and celebrations unique to African Americans and almost the entire African diaspora, this one is perfect because it calls you to illuminate the journey from metaphorical darkness to light, from bondage to freedom, and from despair to joy – a narrative we all know all too well.