Monday, May 31, 2021

Memorial Day


The first Memorial Day or Decoration Day was apparently held in Charleston by freed men and women of color, May 1865, when they went to "decorate" the mass graves of mostly white Union soldiers dead in the local POW camps in love and respect. Via Damario Solomon-Simmons.

I posted this picture a while back, in June 2015, but it seems especially relevant today, when the Memorial Day commemoration feels so overwhelmed by the centenary of the Tulsa massacre of 1921 unless they're brought together like this:

Or in the idea of Nikole Hannah-Jones's father, who enlisted in the Army in 1962, and as a grown man and householder always flew the American flag in his front yard:

The Army did not end up being his way out. He was passed over for opportunities, his ambition stunted. He would be discharged under murky circumstances and then labor in a series of service jobs for the rest of his life. Like all the black men and women in my family, he believed in hard work, but like all the black men and women in my family, no matter how hard he worked, he never got ahead.

So when I was young, that flag outside our home never made sense to me. How could this black man, having seen firsthand the way his country abused black Americans, how it refused to treat us as full citizens, proudly fly its banner? I didn’t understand his patriotism. It deeply embarrassed me....

Like most young people, I thought I understood so much, when in fact I understood so little. My father knew exactly what he was doing when he raised that flag. He knew that our people’s contributions to building the richest and most powerful nation in the world were indelible, that the United States simply would not exist without us.

The thing I can't get over about the 1619 essay is how crazy patriotic it is, in contradistinction to what the rightwing critics have imagined it said, reading it through tears of anticipatory rage or not reading it at all. How imbued with African American love for America, a possessive love, a sense of wronged ownership, not so much of the physical plant of it, like the neoclassical buildings enslaved people built, as of the sentiments, the vaunted ideals of freedom and equality.

That's what Hannah-Jones is claiming Black people invented beginning in 1619: the demand for freedom and equality, and sacrifice to earn them, the idea we talk so much about at Memorial Day every year of how our war dead sacrificed their lives for our freedom—a thing Black people literally did, in all the wars from 1774 onwards:

The very first person to die for this country in the American Revolution was a black man who himself was not free. Crispus Attucks was a fugitive from slavery, yet he gave his life for a new nation in which his own people would not enjoy the liberties laid out in the Declaration for another century. In every war this nation has waged since that first one, black Americans have fought — today we are the most likely of all racial groups to serve in the United States military.

Literally died in the hope of attaining freedom and equality, if not for themselves then for their families and descendants. While the white freedom-seeking heretics who arrived at Plymouth Rock the year after 1619 got as much freedom and equality as they wanted simply by showing up (and immediately started restricting it for others, dotting New England with little radical theocracies)—I don't even need to mention the profit-seeking whites of 1607, who weren't especially interested in freedom for their first century and a half.

1619 is all about Black people taking those values seriously, believing in the promises of the Declaration of Independence and the great Lincoln speeches of the Second Founding, and working to make them reality, against almost always hopeless odds:

As W.E.B. Du Bois wrote, “Few men ever worshiped Freedom with half such unquestioning faith as did the American Negro for two centuries.” Black Americans had long called for universal equality and believed, as the abolitionist Martin Delany said, “that God has made of one blood all the nations that dwell on the face of the earth.” Liberated by war, then, they did not seek vengeance on their oppressors as Lincoln and so many other white Americans feared. They did the opposite. During this nation’s brief period of Reconstruction, from 1865 to 1877, formerly enslaved people zealously engaged with the democratic process. With federal troops tempering widespread white violence, black Southerners started branches of the Equal Rights League — one of the nation’s first human rights organizations — to fight discrimination and organize voters; they headed in droves to the polls, where they placed other formerly enslaved people into seats that their enslavers had once held. The South, for the first time in the history of this country, began to resemble a democracy...

It came to me when I was reading the essay for the first time, and I've been wanting to figure out a way to say so ever since, that Black Americans really have been the prime movers in trying to make Jefferson's and Lincoln's words true of our country, ceaselessly hopeful and ceaselessly frustrated—organizing, organizing, organizing around that one fault line, race, where the reality has fallen so grievously short—creating democracy out of political faith, with very little prospect of success; and that if we ever get there, it will really be because of their contributions: white guys like me and members of the visible minorities who are neither black nor white will owe our democracy to them, and to women going back to good old Abigail Adams and beyond, also excluded from the get-go from freedom and equality. (Even if, you know, the author did give more credence than is strictly justified to one theory on the influence of the 1762 Somerset decision on the American colonists.)

If the nation ever become a place where everybody is truly entitled to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, they will have made it so, I was thinking in 2019, and in 2021 I  can't stop feeling as if I'm witnessing the process in which that works itself out, in the most direct on-the-ground political way, in the particular suffering of people of color in the pandemic, illustrating our problem; in the victorious Democratic political campaign, basically run by Black women from candidate selection to the amazing outcome of the Georgia runoff, pointing to a solution; and in the mass response to the murder of George Floyd finding a patriotically justified moral to the whole thing. It's those people's sacrifice I'm especially acknowledging today, and the hope that it really might have meant something.

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