[Before a series on Decoration Day, the holiday that preceded and evolved into Memorial Day, a special post on shifting our collective memories of the holiday’s histories.]
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 more than 50,000 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. Next Decoration Day post tomorrow,
PS. What do you think?