America in Progress

America in Progress
America in Progress

Friday, May 31, 2019

May 31, 2019: Decoration Day Histories: So What?


[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 three ways to argue for remembering Decoration Day as well as Memorial Day.
If someone (like, I dunno, an imaginary voice in my head to prompt this post…) were to ask me why we should better remember the histories I’ve traced in this week’s posts—were, that is, to respond with the “So what?” of today’s title—my first answer would be simple: because they happened. There are many things about history of which we can’t be sure, nuances or details that will always remain uncertain or in dispute. But there are many others that are in fact quite clear, and we just don’t remember them clearly: and the origins and initial meanings of Decoration Day are just such clear historical facts. Indeed, so clear were those Decoration Day starting points that most Southern states chose not to recognize the holiday at all in its early years. I can’t quite imagine a good-faith argument for not better remembering clear historical facts (especially when they’re as relevant as the origins of a holiday are on that holiday!), and I certainly don’t have any interest in engaging with such an argument.
But there are also other, broader arguments for better remembering these histories. For one thing, the changes in the meanings and commemorations of Decoration Day, and then the gradual shift to Memorial Day, offer a potent illustration of the longstanding role and power of white supremacist perspectives (not necessarily in the most discriminatory or violent senses of the concept, but rather as captured by that Nation editorial’s point about the negro “disappearing from the field of national politics”) in shaping our national narratives, histories, and collective memories. In my adult learning class this past semester I argued for what I called a more inclusive vs. a more exclusive version of American history, one that overtly pushes back on those kinds of narrow, exclusionary, white supremacist historical narratives in favor of a broader and (to my mind) far more accurate sense of all the American communities that have contributed to and been part of our identity and story. Remembering Decoration Day as well as Memorial Day would represent precisely such an inclusive rather than more exclusive version of American history.
There’s also another way to think about and frame that argument. Throughout the last few years, conservatives have argued that the new Common Core and AP US History standards portray and teach a “negative” vision of American history, rather than the celebratory one for which these commentators argue instead. As those hyperlinked articles suggest, these arguments are at best oversimplified, at worst blatantly inaccurate. But it is fair to say that better remembering painful histories such as those of slavery, segregation, and lynching can be a difficult process, especially if we seek to make them more central to our collective national memories. So the more we can find inspiring moments and histories, voices and perspectives, that connect both to those painful histories and to more ideal visions of American identity and community, the more likely it is (I believe) that we will remember them. And I know of few American histories more inspiring than that of Decoration Day: its origins and purposes, its advocates like Frederick Douglass, and its strongest enduring meaning for the African American community—and, I would argue, for all of us.
May recap this weekend,
Ben
PS. What do you think?

Thursday, May 30, 2019

May 30, 2019: Decoration Day Histories: “Rodman the Keeper”


[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 the text that helps us remember a community for whom Decoration Day’s meanings didn’t shift.
In Monday’s post, I highlighted a brief but important scene in Constance Fenimore Woolson’s short story “Rodman the Keeper” (1880). John Rodman, Woolson’s protagonist, is a (Union) Civil War veteran who has taken a job overseeing a Union cemetery in the South; and in this brief but important scene, he observes a group of African Americans (likely former slaves) commemorate Decoration Day by leaving tributes to those fallen Union soldiers. Woolson’s narrator describes the event in evocative but somewhat patronizing terms: “They knew dimly that the men who lay beneath those mounds had done something wonderful for them and for their children; and so they came bringing their blossoms, with little intelligence but with much love.” But she gives the last word in this striking scene to one of the celebrants himself: “we’s kep’ de day now two years, sah, befo’ you came, sah, an we’s teachin’ de chil’en to keep it, sah.”
“Rodman” is set sometime during Reconstruction—perhaps in 1870 specifically, since the first Decoration Day was celebrated in 1868 and the community has been keeping the day for two years—and, as I noted in yesterday’s post, by the 1876 end of that historical period the meaning of Decoration Day on the national level had begun to shift dramatically. But as historian David Blight has frequently noted, such as in the piece hyperlinked in my intro section above and as quoted in this article on Blight’s magisterial book Race and Reunion (2002), the holiday always had a different meaning for African Americans than for other American communities, and that meaning continued to resonate for that community through those broader national shifts. Indeed, it’s possible to argue that as the national meaning shifted away from the kinds of remembrance for which Frederick Douglass argued in his 1871 speech, it became that much more necessary and vital for African Americans to practice that form of critical commemoration (one, to correct Woolson’s well-intended but patronizing description, that included just as much intelligence as love).
In an April 1877 editorial reflecting on the end of Reconstruction, the Nation magazine predicted happily that one effect of that shift would be that “the negro will disappear from the field of national politics. Henceforth the nation, as a nation, will have nothing more to do with him.” Besides representing one of the lowest points in that periodical’s long history, the editorial quite clearly illustrates why the post-Reconstruction national meaning of Decoration Day seems to have won out over the African American one (a shift that culminated, it could be argued, in the change of name to Memorial Day, which began being used as an alternative as early as 1882): because prominent, often white supremacist national voices wanted it to be so. Which is to say, it wasn’t inevitable that the shift would occur or the new meaning would win out—and while we can’t change what happened in our history, we nonetheless can (as I’ll argue at greater length tomorrow) push back and remember the original and, for the African American community, ongoing meaning of Decoration Day.
Last Decoration Day history tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think?

Wednesday, May 29, 2019

May 29, 2019: Decoration Day Histories: Roger Pryor


[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 the invitation and speech that mark two shifts in American attitudes.
In May 1876, New York’s Brooklyn Academy of Music invited Confederate veteran, lawyer, and Democratic politician Roger A. Pryor to deliver its annual Decoration Day address. As Pryor noted in his remarks, the invitation was most definitely an “overture of reconciliation,” one that I would pair with the choice (earlier that same month) of Confederate veteran and poet Sidney Lanier to write and deliver the opening Cantata at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. Indeed, reunion and reconciliation were very much the themes of 1876, threads that culminated in the contested presidential election and the end of Federal Reconstruction that immediately followed it (and perhaps, although historians have different perspectives on this point, stemmed from that election’s controversial results). In any case, this was a year in which the overtures of reconciliation were consistently heard, and we could locate Pryor’s address among the rest.
Yet the remarks that Pryor delivered in his Decoration Day speech could not be accurately described as reconciliatory—unless we shift the meaning to “trying to reconcile his Northern audiences with his Confederate perspective on the war, its causes and effects, and both regions.” Pryor was still waiting, he argued, for “an impartial history” to be told, one that more accurately depicted both “the cause of secession” and Civil War and the subsequent, “dismal period” of Reconstruction. While he could not by any measure be categorized as impartial, he nonetheless attempted to offer his own version of those histories and issues throughout the speech—one designed explicitly, I would argue, to convert his Northern audience to that version of both past and present. Indeed, as I argue at length in my first book, narratives of reunion and reconciliation were quickly supplanted in this period by ones of conversion, attempts—much of the time, as Reconstruction lawyer and novelist Albion Tourgée noted in an 1888 article, very successful attempts at that—to convert the North and the nation as a whole to this pro-Southern standpoint.
In my book’s analysis I argued for a chronological shift: that reunion/reconciliation was a first national stage in this period, and conversion a second. But Pryor’s Decoration Day speech reflects how the two attitudes could go hand-in-hand: the Northern invitation to Pryor could reflect, as he noted, that attitude of reunion on the part of Northern leaders; and Pryor’s remarks and their effects (which we cannot know for certain in this individual case, but which were, as Tourgée noted, quite clear in the nation as a whole) could both comprise and contribute to the attitudes of conversion to the Southern perspective. And in any case, it’s important to add that both reconciliation and conversion differ dramatically from the original purpose of Decoration Day, as delineated so bluntly and powerfully by Frederick Douglass in his 1871 speech: remembrance, of the Northern soldiers who died in the war and of the cause for which they did so. By 1876, it seems clear, that purpose was shifting, toward a combination of amnesia and propaganda, of forgetting the war’s realities and remembering a propagandistic version of them created by voices like Pryor’s.
Next Decoration Day history tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think?