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Saturday, May 30, 2020

May 30-31, 2020: May 2020 Recap

[A Recap of the month that was in AmericanStudying.]
May 4: American Epidemics: The 1918-20 Influenza Pandemic: My first direct engagement with COVID-19 starts with lessons from the most parallel historical pandemic.
May 5: American Epidemics: Yellow Fever: The series continues with the epidemic that almost changed the course of American history, and why it didn’t.
May 6: American Epidemics: Xenophobic Fears: The long history of associating disease with immigrant communities, as the series rolls on.
May 7: American Epidemics: Typhoid Mary: An iconic, complex, and somewhat misunderstood figure, and her symbolic American contexts.
May 8: American Epidemics: The Measles: The series concludes with three telling stages to a frustratingly persistent disease.
May 9-10: American Epidemics: COVID-19: A special post, on two very different sides to life in a pandemic and the crucial, fraught questions that remain.
May 11: Spring 2020 Tributes: Lisa Gim and My English Studies Department: A very different semester recap series kicks off with a tribute to my department chair and colleagues.
May 12: Spring 2020 Tributes: Librarians: The tributes continue with the inspiring and vital work being done by librarians, at FSU and everywhere.
May 13: Spring 2020 Tributes: Kisha Tracy and Collective Efforts: A colleague who truly models how much we’re all in this together, as the tributes roll on.
May 14: Spring 2020 Tributes: Aruna Krishnamurthy and Unions: My colleague and friend who embodies how much we all need unions and solidarity, in times like these as in every moment.
May 15: Spring 2020 Tributes: Social Media Communities: The series concludes with the communities and conversations that kept me going during this locked down spring.
May 16-17: Spring 2020 Reflections: One more Spring semester recap, three takeaways of mine from the most unprecedented teaching experience of my career.
May 18: LibraryStudying: The Library Company of Philadelphia: A series for the NYPL’s anniversary starts with a groundbreaking, democratizing American library.
May 19: LibraryStudying: The Boston Public Library: The series continues with three distinct but interconnected influences on the BPL’s development.
May 20: LibraryStudying: Childhood Libraries: Standout moments from my own childhood experiences and seeing them echoed and extended by my sons, as the series reads on.
May 21: LibraryStudying: Little Free Libraries: Why it’s hard to criticize a recent bibliographic trend, and one way I would do so nonetheless.
May 22: LibraryStudying: Working at Libraries: The series concludes with three moments where libraries and archives have contributed greatly to my writing and career.
May 23-24: LibraryStudying: The NYPL: For its anniversary, how three historic New Yorkers contributed to the NYPL’s evolution.
May 25: Remembering Memorial Day: A Memorial Day series kicks off with my annual post on remembering the holiday’s Decoration Day origins.
May 26: Decoration Day Histories: Frederick Douglass: The series continues with a fiery 1871 speech that expressed the worst and best of Decoration Day.
May 27: Decoration Day Histories: Roger Pryor: The invitation and speech that mark two frustrating shifts in American attitudes, as the series speaks on.
May 28: Decoration Day Histories: “Rodman the Keeper”: An under-appreciated literary work that helps us remember how the holiday remained constant for certain Americans.
May 29: Decoration Day Histories: So What?: The series concludes with three reasons to remember Decoration Day alongside Memorial Day.
Next series starts Monday,
PS. Topics you’d like to see covered in this space? Guest Posts you’d like to contribute? Lemme know!

Friday, May 29, 2020

May 29, 2020: 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,
PS. What do you think?

Thursday, May 28, 2020

May 28, 2020: 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,
PS. What do you think?