Music: Tom Vek: Leisure Seizure (2011)
Until the first famous president from Texas made it a federal law in 1966, Memorial Day was a holiday observed at various times throughout the year depending, of course, on the state and community. In Texas, Decoration Day was celebrated on the birthday of the president of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis (June 3rd). A statue of Davis sits on the quad here at the University of Texas greeting visitors as part of the marble statue welcome wagon, the infamous “Littlefield Gateway,” perched among other notable confederate leaders and, er, George Washington.
(George W. Littlefield was among the first wealthy regents of the University of Texas and a powerful figure in its governance in the early 20th century; a plantation worker and eventually owner, as well as a Civil War veteran, Littlefield sought to make UT a university that preserved the history of the south—in other words, he wanted to make UT the preserver of confederate heritage and southern pride.)
In other parts of the country, such as in South Carolina among African American communities, and especially in the northern states, Decoration Day was celebrated on May 30th to honor fallen Union soldiers. Many in the south refused to recognize the holiday, which is why they did their own decorating on June 3rd. LBJ changed all of that, as did the country, when the angry, white, southern part of it saw the light (the rest had already let the light in).
The shift in name from “Decoration Day” to “Memorial Day” means a lot of rhetorical maneuvering had to have went down–there’s a dissertation in that. Regardless, the holiday was originally so-named in reference to the practice of literally decorating the graves of interred soldiers with flowers, trinkets, flags, and so forth. The holiday is a decidedly morbid tradition that harkens to cemetery life in the 19th century. Many of us are far removed from this funerary culture, one in which the cemetery was understood as a park, a place to go with the family and have a picnic, to commune with the dead. Changing the name of the holiday, in many ways, reflects a change in how we think about death (it’s no longer part of the living room), as well as how we think about war. Modern warfare combined with various forms of technology—weaponry and communication, which are now mind-bogglingly fused—have erased the traces of bodies. Government officials and those who dedicate their lives to public service are closer to the tradition, and the U.S. government does a lot to make sure the citizenry doesn’t forget what the holiday is about (remember the dead soldier).
The strangeness of Memorial Day, to me, is that it has become almost thoughtless. Whether it’s the rabid, nationalist-type celebrating god, guns, and glory, or the cynical, anti-war type who had just rather avoid the crazy nationalist-types, it’s hard to find a middle-road for remembrance here. Well, I say that it’s hard, but it’s really not; I think because of our hyper-apocalyptic media cycles, it’s simply difficult to imagine a subjectivity in which quiet remembrance at home, alone, without a grill in sight or someone telling you how to think—is possible. It is (I’m writing this, anyhoo.) This afternoon at 3:00 p.m., I will take a moment—as many are starting to do—to really think about our dead soldiers, the profound sacrifices they made, the complexities of war (and it’s unfortunate necessity), the mistakes those who wage wars made, how I wish war—as “fun” as it is to some folks—was a thing of the past (how we’d be better off making love, but with protection), and so on. I am fortunate that, while many members of my family have been in wars, and a handful of my friends, none have died. I suppose memorial day is odd to me because (thankfully) I do not have a grave to decorate. But that doesn’t mean I don’t know someone who does.
And, finally, I want to think about memorial day the way it originally went down: it’s about racism and hate, and the people who were motivated to fight in league with these motives or against them. Memorial Day is ultimately a holiday that concerns the horror of slavery. Perhaps this is why the name of the holiday has changed? Perhaps we no longer decorate graves because the practice localizes
demoralization memorialization to a specific, geography that too easily evokes “north” and “south?” Perhaps we have changed the name of the holiday, and expanded the dead to include any solider in any war, because we have finally moved beyond hate and racism?
Well, that is perhaps too optimistic. One person’s “moving forward” is another person’s “historical amnesia,” right? Very few of the students walking past the statue of Jefferson Davis will realize his connection to the holiday today. I’m not sure if that’s a good thing—that a divided North/South is no longer a defining point of one’s identity—or if it’s something to lament. But it’s something, nonetheless, and an indefinable, vexed, and complicated “something” is usually what holidays centered on death are about anyway. So let’s be ambivalent about Memorial Day. And let’s be comfortable and undecided about that ambivalence. We have this luxury. The interred soldier does not . . . and, in a complicated, non-clichéd sense, all the more reason to honor him or her.