Tuesday, May 31, 2016
[Following up Monday’s Memorial Day special, a series on some of the complex American histories connected to the holiday’s original identity as Decoration Day.]
On one of the great American speeches, and why it’d be so important to add to our collective memories.
In a long-ago guest post on Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Atlantic blog, Civil War historian Andy Hall highlighted Frederick Douglass’s amazing 1871 Decoration Day speech (full text available at that first link). Delivered at Virginia’s Arlington National Cemetery, then as now the single largest resting place of U.S. soldiers, Douglass’s short but incredibly (if not surprisingly) eloquent and pointed speech has to be ranked as one of the most impressive in American history. I’m going to end this first paragraph here so you can read the speech in full (again, it’s at the first link above), and I’ll see you in a few.
Welcome back! If I were to close-read Douglass’s speech, I could find choices worth extended attention in every paragraph and every line. But I agree with Hall’s final point, that the start of Douglass’s concluding paragraph—“But we are not here to applaud manly courage, save as it has been displayed in a noble cause. We must never forget that victory to the rebellion meant death to the republic”—is particularly noteworthy and striking. Granted, this was not yet the era that would come to be dominated by narratives of reunion and reconciliation between the regions, and then by ones of conversation to the Southern perspective (on all of which, see tomorrow’s post); an era in which Douglass’s ideas would be no less true, nor in which (I believe) he would have hesitated to share them, but in which a Decoration Day organizing committee might well have chosen not to invite a speaker who would articulate such a clear and convincing take on the causes and meanings of the Civil War. Yet even in 1871, to put that position so bluntly and powerfully at such an occasion would have been impressive for even a white speaker, much less an African American one.
If we were to better remember Douglass’s Decoration Day speech, that would be one overt and important effect: to push back on so many of the narratives of the Civil War that have developed in the subsequent century and a half. One of the most frequent such narratives is that there was bravery and sacrifice on both sides, as if to produce a leveling effect on our perspective on the war—but as Douglass notes in the paragraph before that conclusion, recognizing individual bravery in combat is not at all the same as remembering a war: “The essence and significance of our devotions here today are not to be found in the fact that the men whose remains fill these graves were brave in battle.” I believe Douglass here can be connected to Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, and its own concluding notion of honoring the dead through completing “the unfinished work”: “It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us.” That work and task remained unfinished and great long after the Civil War’s end, after all—and indeed remain so to this day in many ways. Just another reason to better remember Frederick Douglass’s Decoration Day speech.
Next Decoration Day history tomorrow,
PS. What do you think?
Monday, May 30, 2016
[This special post is the first of a series inspired by the history behind Memorial Day. Check out my similar 2012 and 2014 series for more!]
On what we don’t remember about Memorial Day, and why we should.
In a long-ago post on the Statue of Liberty, I made a case for remembering, and engaging much more fully, with what the Statue was originally intended, by its French abolitionist creator, to symbolize: the legacy of slavery and abolitionism in both America and France, the assassination of Abraham Lincoln and the memories of what he had done to advance that cause, and so on. I tried there, hopefully with some success, to leave ample room for what the Statue has come to mean, both for America as a whole and, more significantly still, for generation upon generation of immigrant arrivals to the nation. I think those meanings, especially when tied to Emma Lazarus’ poem and its radically democratic and inclusive vision of our national identity, are beautiful and important in their own right. But how much more profound and meaningful, if certainly more complicated, would they be if they were linked to our nation’s own troubled but also inspiring histories of slavery and abolitionism, of sectional strife and Civil War, of racial divisions and those who have worked for centuries to transcend and bridge them?
I would say almost exactly the same thing when it comes to the history of Memorial Day. For the last century or so, at least since the end of World War I, the holiday has meant something broadly national and communal, an opportunity to remember and celebrate those Americans who have given their lives as members of our armed forces. While I certainly feel that some of the narratives associated with that idea are as simplifying and mythologizing and meaningless as many others I’ve analyzed here—“they died for our freedom” chief among them; the world would be a vastly different, and almost certainly less free, place had the Axis powers won World War II (for example), but I have yet to hear any convincing case that the world would be even the slightest bit worse off were it not for the quarter of a million American troops who lives were wasted in the Vietnam War (for another)—those narratives are much more about politics and propaganda, and don’t change at all the absolutely real and tragic and profound meaning of service and loss for those who have done so and all those who know and love them. One of the most pitch-perfect statements of my position on such losses can be found in a song by (surprisingly) Bruce Springsteen; his “Gypsy Biker,” from Magic (2007), certainly includes a strident critique of the Bush Administration and Iraq War, as seen in lines like “To those who threw you away / You ain’t nothing but gone,” but mostly reflects a brother’s and family’s range of emotions and responses to the death of a young soldier in that war.
Yet as with the Statue, Memorial Day’s original meanings and narratives are significantly different from, and would add a great deal of complexity and power to, these contemporary images. The holiday was first known as Decoration Day, and was (at least per the thorough histories of it by scholars like David Blight) originated in 1865 by a group of freed slaves in Charleston, South Carolina; the slaves visited a cemetery for Union soldiers on May 1st of that year and decorated their graves, a quiet but very sincere tribute to what those soldiers have given and what it had meant to the lives of these freedmen and –women. The holiday quickly spread to many other communities, and just as quickly came to focus more on the less potentially divisive, or at least less complex as reminders of slavery and division and the ongoing controversies of Reconstruction and so on, perspectives of former soldiers—first fellow Union ones, but by the 1870s veterans from both sides. Yet former slaves continued to honor the holiday in their own way, as evidenced by a powerful scene from Constance Fenimore Woolson’s “Rodman the Keeper” (1880), in which the protagonist observes a group of ex-slaves leaving their decorations on the graves of the Union dead at the cemetery where he works. On the one hand, these ex-slave memorials are parallel to the family memories that now dominate Memorial Day, and serve as a beautiful reminder that the American family extends to blood relations of very different and perhaps even more genuine kinds. But on the other hand, the ex-slave memorials represent far more complex and in many ways (I believe) significant American stories and perspectives than a simple familial memory; these acts were a continuing acknowledgment both of some of our darkest moments and of the ways in which we had, at great but necessary cost, defeated them.
Again, I’m not trying to suggest that any current aspects or celebrations of Memorial Day are anything other than genuine and powerful; having heard some eloquent words about what my Granddad’s experiences with his fellow soldiers had meant to him (he even commandeered an abandoned bunker and hand-wrote a history of the Company after the war!), I share those perspectives. But as with the Statue and with so many of our national histories, what we’ve forgotten is just as genuine and powerful, and a lot more telling about who we’ve been and thus who and where we are. The more we can remember those histories too, the more complex and meaningful our holidays, our celebrations, our memories, and our futures will be.
Series continues tomorrow,
PS. What do you think?
Saturday, May 28, 2016
[A Recap of the month that was in AmericanStudying.]
May 2: Classical Music Icons: Aaron Copland’s “Appalachian Spring”: A classical music series kicks off with the composer and work that helped bring classical music to America, and vice versa.
May 3: Classical Music Icons: The Gershwins: The series continues with the lesser-known careers and works of the other two Gershwin siblings.
May 4: Classical Music Icons: Maria Callas: Two telling dualities embodied by one of America’s most famous opera singers, as the series rolls on.
May 5: Classical Music Icons: Yo-Yo Ma: Three very American moments in the career of one of our most talented classical musicians.
May 6: Classical Music Icons: Florence Foster Jenkins: The series concludes with what’s funny, and what’s more serious, about a famous failure.
May 7-8: Mother’s Day Special Post: For the holiday, highlighting a short story that helps us remember and celebrate one of society’s toughest and most vital roles.
May 9: Semester Reflections: Yung Wing in Am Lit I: A series of Spring 16 reflections kicks off with a long overdue first step in my American literature survey.
May 10: Semester Reflections: Annie Baker in Capstone: The series continues with two distinct but complementary reasons to teach more drama in literature courses.
May 11: Semester Reflections: A Writing Associate in Major American Authors: One expected and one surprising lesson provided by my student Writing Associate, as the series rolls on.
May 12: Semester Reflections: Multimedia Texts in Ethnic American Lit: The value of adding two kinds of multimedia texts to a familiar and favorite course.
May 13: Semester Reflections: Poetry in ALFA: The series concludes with three examples of poems that complemented the historical subjects in my latest Adult Learning course.
May 14-15: Fall 2016 Questions: A special weekend post on three requests through which you can help with my Fall 16 course planning and development!
May 16: AmericanStudying 60s Rock: The Beach Boys and Dylan: A series on the 50th anniversary of Pet Sounds and Blonde on Blonde kicks off with those two models for artistic innovation.
May 17: AmericanStudying 60s Rock: “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”: The series continues with a troubling song and why those problems do and don’t matter.
May 18: AmericanStudying 60s Rock: Jimi Hendrix’s Covers: What the legendary guitarist brought to three covers, as the series rocks on.
May 19: AmericanStudying 60s Rock: Joan and Janis: Two alternate visions of 60s counter-culture, and what links them.
May 20: AmericanStudying 60s Rock: Woodstock: The series concludes with three telling moments from across the four-day festival that culminated 60s rock.
May 21-22: Crowd-sourced RockStudying: One of my most epic crowd-sourced posts yet, with rocking responses and even a mini-Guest Post from many fellow RockStudiers—add your own, please!
May 23: New Scholarly Books: Heidi Kim’s Invisible Subjects: A series on new AmericanStudies scholarly books starts with a great addition to Asian and American Studies.
May 24: New Scholarly Books: André Carrington’s Speculative Blackness: The series continues with a vital connection of race, science fiction, and cultural studies.
May 25: New Scholarly Books: Teresa Thomas’ American Arabists in the Cold War Middle East: A colleague’s important new book and inspiring career arc, as the series rolls on.
May 26: New Scholarly Books: Jacobs and King’s Fed Power: A public scholarly book with the potential to impact and alter the presidential campaign and beyond.
May 27: New Scholarly Books: Finding Light between the Pages: The series concludes with three things to know about my own scholarly book-in-progress!
Next series starts Monday,
PS. Topics you’d like to see covered in this space? Guest Posts you’d like to contribute? Lemme know!