On why the holiday’s contemporary meaning also has profound AmericanStudies significance.
Throughout this past week’s series, I’ve made the case for how and why we should better remember the Decoration Day origins of our modern Memorial Day, as well as the overtly white supremacist reasons for the shift from one holiday and frame to the other in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. As is the case with so many aspects of 21st century America, we can’t understand where we are without a better sense of where we’ve been—and that remains true, if it’s not indeed especially true, when it comes to seemingly innocuous societal elements like a shared and celebratory national holiday. As I said back in Monday’s post, however, none of that means that I don’t recognize and agree with that contemporary meaning for the holiday, the emphasis on commemorating and celebrating those who have fallen in American wars and conflicts over the centuries.
Moreover, that modern Memorial Day meaning can in and of itself offer a profound challenge and alternative to white supremacist histories and visions of America. In this Saturday Evening Post Considering History column, I made the case for the WWII soldiers of color—Japanese American, African American, and Native American soldiers and units (in the still-segregated armed forces) in particular—whose stories and sacrifices truly exemplify the American contribution to that crucial conflict. The same is true for every war and conflict in which the United States has been involved: Americans and communities of color have participated, have served and sacrificed, in numbers that far outstrip their demographics within the national population at the time. The nearly 180,000 African Americans who served in the Civil War’s United States Colored Troops units, and most especially the 20% of those soldiers who were killed in action (a number 35% higher than the equivalent rate for white Union troops), offer only a particularly striking illustration of this longstanding trend.
After one of my book talks for We the People a couple years back, an audience member asked why so many of my examples of an inclusive America were related to wars and military service. I took the point to heart, and in Of Thee I Sing I tried not to focus too much on military service for my examples of active and critical patriotism. War, even in the most idealized versions, certainly features and often foregrounds horrors that can’t be elided or minimized. But there’s no doubt that military service also represents one of the most overt and consistent forms of civic participation, an expression of an individual’s presence in and commitment to the national community. It’s thus pretty damn telling that Americans of color have so consistently, so centrally, and so inspiringly served and sacrificed for a nation that too often has been dominated by white supremacist narratives and ideologies that would seek to exclude those Americans from the national community. That’s a history worth commemorating and celebrating every day—and doubly so on Memorial Day.
Next series starts Monday,
PS. What do you think? Memorial Day tributes or thoughts you’d add?