[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 much of my teaching, writing, and work over the last decade I’ve 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 (we saw the same argument made at length in the 1776 Commission report). As so many historians and scholars have noted in response, 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.
Special Memorial Day tribute post this weekend,
PS. What do you think?