Memorial Day weekend 2014: time for another installment of my ongoing struggle to understand the America for which people kill and die. We have general agreement that Memorial Day began as a way to commemorate the hundreds of thousands who died in the Civil War. Today, we allow that the parades and picnics and, in Indianapolis, a gigantic car race, do nothing to detract from the solemnity of the occasion. As religious historian Conrad Cherry wrote in 1969, “Memorial Day is part of an American ceremonial calendar…a sacred day when the war dead are mourned, the spirit of redemptive sacrifice extolled, and pledges to American ideas renewed.” Under President Lyndon Johnson, the nation officially recognized Waterloo, New York as the birthplace of this ceremony, thereby designating May 1866 as the first celebration of Memorial Day. But this formal recognition is almost certainly wrong. Wrong not just historically, but especially in light of a landmark essay from Ta-Nehisi Coates, wrong morally.
Yale historian David Blight contends that Memorial Day began in Charleston, South Carolina on May 1, 1865 by thousands of freedmen who had effectively taken over the city. In a day-long celebration, Charleston’s freed black population enacted “a burial ceremony” at a site that had once been a race track for Charleston’s elite. During the war, the Confederacy turned the it into an open-air prison that had by the end of the war become a cemetery for the hundreds of Union prisoners who had perished there. In the spring of 1865, the black people of Charleston decided to build a proper cemetery for these dead and to use the occasion to “bury” slavery. According to Blight, the celebration that took place on May 1, and included a parade with at least 10,000 people, among them 3,000 black children singing John Brown’s Body, and a few thousand Union infantry marching at the rear of a huge procession into the racetrack. The moment was memorialized by black preachers, who proclaimed it the independence day of the second American revolution.
Blight makes much of the fact that this is largely “a lost story” that few know or fail to remember with any force. It is a memory nearly erased by the “power of the ‘Lost Cause,’” an effect many historians have written about. Blight notes that in 1867, “Harper’s Weekly had a drawing of the cemetery,” thus confirming the actions of the Charleston’s freedmen. Today, the place drips with irony, as it is housed within Hampton Park, named for the white-supremacist Confederate general and former governor of South Carolina Wade Hampton III, and sits across from the Citadel, the South’s military academy.
When Cherry wrote his essay on Memorial Day in the late 1960s, he did so cognizant of the war that raged around the celebration in his time. Yet, among all holidays on the American calendar, Memorial Day not merely remembers those who served the nation, obviously Veterans Day does that as well, but memorializes a certain kind of sacrifice. “The sacrifices [blood sacrifices] are the sanctification of America’s ‘divine mission’ of preserving and dispensing freedom.” The collision between the origins and purpose of Memorial Day should give us more than pause this weekend.
The history of Memorial Day forces us to confront what Sylvester Johnson recently emphasized in an essay for the Center for the Study of Religion and American Culture. “There is a massive specter lurking in the shadows of this discussion, rarely venturing into discursive light: the status of the US as a racial state. The US is the product of White settler colonialism; it was created as an Anglo-American republic of White-only citizens. The more recent, formal inscription of multiracial democracy in the US—encoding citizenship for non-Whites and legislating privileges like voting and property ownership—has not altered its essential, architectural form as a racial, settler state.” While Johnson was not speaking specifically about Memorial Day, the point of his argument shares common ground with the founders of Memorial Day in Charleston, people who believed they were celebrating more than the end of the Civil War or the sacrifice of men in battle, but the triumph of a second American revolution. Yet, as Johnson makes plain, the entombing of slavery did not prevent the specter of racism from haunting celebrations of the nation. Memorial Day could recognize and memorialize the sacrifices of those who have legitimate claim to defining America but have been forgotten, overlooked, subjugated, and oppressed. It does not. Wars that have sacralized the meaning of America have not put an end to the war that continues over recognizing all the sacrifices made in America.
By our unpaid labor and suffering, we have earned the right to the soil, many times over and over, and now we are determined to have it.
— Anonymous, 1861
Using the epigraph above, Ta-Nehisi Coates, hammers what is still owed for such sacrifice. In his remarkable essay on reckoning with the debt America owes for its racism, Coates’s introduces us to the story of Clyde Ross, who was born in 1923 deep in Jim Crow Mississippi and who moved to racial discrimination in Chicago. While I am not in a position to discuss Coates’s essay in full, I wanted to suggest it to readers with a brief thought. It seems to me that Coates is a geologist of America’s historical and moral landscape. His work uncovers layers of racism deposited over time that created the foundation on which we now live and have lived for a long time. His sense of historical change, I think, needs to be appreciated for its geological insight, for he is asking us to feel the organic forces that created what we often refer to by default as institutional racism. Institutions are the products of those tectonic forces that Coates and Johnson identify, they are not the causes—the causes are deeper, or put bluntly, part of the landscape. Coates’s essay is a landmark, not as reference to history, but as view of what history has wrought—what is underneath us all.