Today is Memorial Day in the United States. Banks, schools and government offices are closed. Parades have marched the streets of our cities. Families gather for a picnic or meet at the cemetery to leave flowers on the graves of loved ones. For many, it is a day of honoring those who gave their lives for this country. For others, it’s just a day to sleep in and hang out with friends over juicy burgers and potato salad.
As a young girl in a long line of Conscientious Objectors who refused to pick up weapons in times of war, I personally knew no one who had died in the line of duty. It was pretty much a day of picnics for me. As an adult, however, I’ve come to realize that today is not a picnic.
May 30, 1868 was the first official Memorial Day. It was originally called Decoration Day, and was set aside as a time to decorate the graves of those who had died in the war with flowers.
Three years after the end of the Civil War, we decided to decorate the graves of those who died in the war between us. The war between the North and the South. The war that threatened the collapse of an empire. The war that turned brother against brother, that was really about keeping the South in the Union and protecting an economy built on the backs of slaves than it was about freeing those slaves. This did not begin as a day to honor soldiers who died “over there” but, rather, the ones who died here.
But there is another version, an unofficial version, of how Memorial Day started. David W. Blight, a Yale historian, has found a list of commemorations initiated by freed Black Americans. The largest took place on May 1,1865, less than a month after the end of the war, when more than 10,000 of them gathered to dig up a mass grave of what had been hundreds of Union prisoners. These Black Americans dug up the bones that represented their freedom and lovingly gave them each a proper burial and built a fence around the new cemetery. Then they marched, lamented, honored, and sang with crosses, flowers, wreaths and anthems.
Later, the South hushed the voices of the Black Community and made the day about the reconciliation and sacrifices of White America, completely leaving out the voices of Black America. Mississippi, South Carolina, and Alabama each have their own days to celebrate Confederate Memorial Day as State Holidays, in addition to the National Memorial Day.
153 years after the end of the Civil War and we are still fighting each other, still shushing the voices of Black America, still making things about us.
I’m going to fire up my grill soon and throw on the burgers. Then I’m going to sit my boys down and tell them about some pretty brave folks who dug up a mass grave, and honored the bones of those who had suffered for their freedom.
Isn’t it time we stop making everything about us?
Isn’t it time we stop telling Black America what patriotism looks like?