Several years ago, my young, immigrant self came across the words “Memorial Day” on the calendar for the first time. I spent the day remembering a dear loved one who passed away though her battle was with cancer, not against military enemies. Her death was relatively recent and I used the day to recall my merry memories with her in order to counter my searing loss. It was not until afterward that my blissful ignorance was interrupted and I came to find out that the day was used to celebrate the fallen who laid down their lives defending the United States.
As years passed, I realized that, much like Independence Day, Veterans Day, and Thanksgiving Day, it is also a day for department stores to promote their sales. This left me unbothered, accepting it as “this is just something Americans do” and not giving it a second thought. But as I was watching TV last night, I came across three commercials in a row from three different stores all advertising their Memorial Day sales. And as I watched, I had that feeling of disconnect, of “something doesn’t add up here,” when viewing the whimsical advertising juxtaposed with the imagery of men and women in uniform at somber ceremonies, saluting their fellow military men and women who had fallen. I have felt this way in recent years every time this holiday came up, not understanding why these companies would have these “historical” sales without batting an eye. Truth be told, the only relevance these Memorial Day sales have to the history of Memorial Day is the fact that it happens in the United States only.
But wait…”the history of Memorial Day.” I don’t have a firm grasp of that either. I never received a thorough explanation concerning the context of the holiday in my history courses other than how it used to be called “Decoration Day” and its existence being the result of the Civil War. But today, I came across this perspective shifting article on the New York Times by David Blight, an author, historian, and director of the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance and Abolition at Yale.
He painted the backdrop of an late-1800s America at the end of the Civil War with hundreds of thousands casualties from the Northern and Southern states. This left them with many graves to decorate (hence where we get the name “Decoration Day”). The Northern States and the Southern States hailed those who fought and died from their respective states as heroes, making it a point to remember them in grave decorating and remembrance ceremonies. This custom of remembrance happened every year and continues till today, the day that we now call Memorial Day.
But this practice did not come out of thin air. Dr. Blight continued to explain how the practice arose from black people, mostly former slaves, who used the day to remember and commemorate the Union dead that the Confederates left behind. He mentioned that black people used their hands to build their graves and bury them, inscribing “Martyrs of the Racecourse” on the entrance of the gravesite.
Reading this left me jaw dropped, marveling in bittersweetness as I now know roots of a public holiday whiled pained at its lack of recognition. It is clear that when calls for reference to the history of Memorial Day are made, blackness hardly ever echoes back; much of its pen marks in the archives of American history are erased to reveal white nothingness–a mark of nonexistence, blankness. And in a nation where so many grimace at the mere mention of race, I feel that many will see these marks but continue their subsequent Memorial Day recognitions in future years not noting this important history.
So easy it is to label me as the silly, ignorant immigrant who saw the holiday on the calendar and remembered my loved one Memorial Day who fought against a disease to defend herself, not a whole country. But for more than a couple centuries to pass and Memorial Day to evolve to what it is today with calls of attention to sales and remembrance of the fallen without recognition of its black roots, well, that ignorance is far from blissful. That is tragic. But I know it can change if the knowledge becomes more prominent.
Were you taught the history of Memorial Day in school? What are your thoughts regarding its history and other aspects of Memorial Day?