Black Folks’ Invention Number 1001: Memorial Day


Black Union Soldiers

Y’all know we Black folks love us some Memorial Day.  Back in the day, I had a friend—well, okay, me—who used to take off the Thursday before Memorial Day and party all weekend until Tuesday morning before I had to go back to work, and I really wasn’t commemorating anything. It embarrasses me, but I have to be honest: it was all about a party.

And though I’m a vegetarian now, I still get a little sad that not eating anything that had parents means I had to give up, like, actual meat. Which meant I couldn’t eat barbecue. But who knew that before I gave up eating dead things, I was partaking in African American history, gnawing all on those rib bones and trying not to get grease on my cute holiday outfit?

It turns out we Black folks invented the actual holiday of Memorial Day, and not just the holiday barbecue.

Today an Op-Ed about Memorial Day came out in The New York Times, written by David W. Blight, a professor at Yale University. Citing archival materials (and y’all know I love me some primary historical documents!) Dr. Blight dates the very first Memorial Day back to the actions of freed slaves in the year 1865.

Here’s an excerpt:

But for the earliest and most remarkable Memorial Day, we must return to where the war began. By the spring of 1865, after a long siege and prolonged bombardment, the beautiful port city of Charleston, S.C., lay in ruin and occupied by Union troops. Among the first soldiers to enter and march up Meeting Street singing liberation songs was the 21st United States Colored Infantry; their commander accepted the city’s official surrender.

Whites had largely abandoned the city, but thousands of blacks, mostly former slaves, had remained, and they conducted a series of commemorations to declare their sense of the meaning of the war.

To read the rest of the article, click on this link. (But first, put the pig meat down because you don’t want to get sauce on your keyboard.)

And after you do that, think about talking to one of the old folks in your family who served in the military. Ask him (or her) to tell you the story before the story dies when he (or she) does.  These stories are important and shouldn’t be lost, but so frequently, by the time we remember to ask the elders certain questions, it’s too late.

I really regret never asking my father about his time as an army lieutenant during World War II, but a few years ago, I was talking to my mother’s brother Thed about his tour in Vietnam and I gotta tell you, I don’t think I heard my Uncle Thed get so animated ever in my whole life as he did telling that story. (Uncle Thed is one laid back, super-cool brother.)

In many communities of color, the service (despite all its issues) was the one place African American men could ascend to success and have some dignity at the same time. I’m anti-war, but I am not anti-Soldier, anti-Sailor or anti-Marine. I have too many Black men in my family who served and in a dignified way, including my father, my uncle Thed who retired as a Chief Petty Officer from the Navy, and my father’s great-grandfather Charles Flippin who was a Private on the Union side during the Civil War.

So Happy Memorial Day, Y’all. We deserve those ribs, don’t you think?

2 thoughts on “Black Folks’ Invention Number 1001: Memorial Day

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