Happy Memorial Day

In the US today, we are celebrating the start of summer with our annual Memorial Day celebration. It’s also a time to remember those who have passed, particularly those lost in military conflicts. I hope you get to spend the day celebrating life with family, food, friends and fun.

We’ll be back to our regular content tomorrow after we recover from our picnic hangover.

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  1. I need to respond with this. I know it’s long.

    What are you Doing for Memorial Day? A Black History Mystery

    4 min read

    “Merry Christmas.” Well, of course. “Happy Holidays.” Again, no problem. It’s good to acknowledge that some months contain not only a succession of celebrations and holidays, but also of holiday meals. Now that makes us happy. “Happy Hanukkah.” Yep. “Happy New Year!” (Not “Happy New Year’s,” unless it’s followed by “Day.”) “Happy ‘Martin Luther King Day?’” No. Not even close. Wrong on two counts, which I’ll explain in some later gentle tirade. The most egregious, inappropriate “Happy,” in my opinion? “Happy Memorial Day.” How does one have a “Happy Memorial Day?” It’s about dead people.

    Here’s an abbreviated history of the day for those who were born after it became a three-day weekend extravaganza in 1971. Memorial Day began to be observed at the close of the Civil War when emancipated former slaves in Charleston, South Carolina, honored union soldiers, both black and white, who had been dumped into mass graves at the hands of Confederate soldiers. The gravesite was a racetrack called The Washington Race Track. The newly-emancipated citizens disenterred the bodies and gave them individual burials. Afterwards, on May 1st, 1865, in commemoration, they gathered by the thousands, led by 2,000 black children carrying flowers and decorated the graves.*

    After the War, former Confederates commemorated the service of their fallen by decorating their graves with flowers. These celebrations became known as “Decoration Day” and were generally held during the spring and early summer because the weather was pleasant and fresh flowers were available.

    Northerners adopted the practice later, when General John Logan, head of the Grand Army of the Republic, a Union veterans’ organization, chose May 30 as the “official” day to honor the Civil War dead. I wasn’t there when all of this took place, but I doubt that grieving relatives gathered on grounds still scarred from battle to wish one another a “happy” anything.

    Both sides of the Civil War referred to the day as “Decoration Day,”but the North and South, demonstrating early on that their political differences were not truly over, distinguished “Memorial Day” and “Confederate Memorial Day.” (Yeah, I know.) Whatever the day was called, many Americans observed May 30th with veterans’ parades, flag ceremonies, cemetery services, and graveside lunchons. Through the 1950s and 60s, the privations of war and memories of the dead from recent conflicts were still fresh in the minds of many, and the country paused for genuine moments to honor their sacrifices.

    Fast forward to 1971, when Memorial Day became part of the three-day-weekend Uniform Monday Holiday Act. What was once one day of solemn ceremony by date became one among many guaranteed long weekends. Nineteenth century mourners often concluded the day with picnics (they were already outside) but the picnic was the soothing aftermath of sad remembrance; it was not the main event. When memories of war losses faded and the entire day was able to be devoted to pleasure, the national mood drifted from bereavement to barbecue and from solemnity to summer and sales.

    Along with the honored dead, we honor the privileges and freedoms that come from their sacrifices. I respect your rights to Freedom of Speech and the Pursuit of Happiness, but I urge you to think before you thoughtlessly repeat “Happy Memorial Day,” and to pause before you party.

    We are reading this in the middle of turmoil across the globe, a pandemic not quite over, increased gun violence which steals the lives of many, and ongoing conflict between Americans about what Democracy should look like.

    We are resuming the gatherings we’ve missed, and we are definitely overdue for some “almost-Summer” glee.

    On Monday, May 27th, may we pause a moment in memory of war veterans, for lives lost to a dread illness, and those sacrificed to “rights” gone wrong?

    Please pause to consider the present battles of inequality revealed in 2020 by the COVID-19 Pandemic and how we might resolve them. Pause to consider what “those honored dead” might think of our current, and conflicting, interpretations of freedom. Pause to ask how can we best honor those lost in battle and for the many now embattled by circumstance. Pause to ask how the life you live today can honor the history of the first Memorial Day and the people of color whose blood, sweat, and tears built this nation. Then, give one last thought to how you, and we, can honor the dead by improving the lives of all the living. We can never have a “Happy Memorial Day,” but perhaps we can use Memorial Day to make our nation happier. I can think of no higher tribute.

    Done? Now on to the picnic.

    Courtesy of David Blight, Historian

    As always, thanks for reading, and remember November.

    Memorial Day
    Black History
    American History

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