Giving New Meaning to Memorial Day
In recent years, I’ve started thinking about Memorial Day differently.
Traditionally, it’s always been a time to acknowledge members of the military and civilians who have died in this nation’s declared wars. But lately, I’ve also been reflecting on those who have died in America’s undeclared wars — those who have lost their lives to state violence, systemic oppression, neglect, and hate stoked by lies.
War is all around us.
As a Black person in America, I often feel like this country has been in an undeclared war with us since 1877, a year that marked the end of chattel slavery and the subsequent military-enforced Reconstruction. The time since has seemed like a series of sequels. But instead of fighting over the matter of slavery, the US, North and South (and West), has been fighting for and against Black people and other marginalized folks declaring their humanity and trying to exercise their right to be recognized and treated as equal citizens. That effort has resulted in the US, the government and white citizens, responding in a war-like manner.
Going to school, going to war
I remember hearing my mom, a child of the Civil Rights Movement, talk about the bombs she would hear go off while growing up in Alabama. They came from white people trying to terrorize and intimidate Black communities who were challenging Jim Crow laws. She said, somewhat shocked at her own recollection, “It was like we were at war.”
And it’s not only white civilians. History teaches us that the US military, police forces, and government resources have often been deployed to keep Black people from accessing our rights and to violently enforce systems of white supremacy. In 1957, nine Black high school students in Little Rock, Arkansas, attempted to attend school with 1,800 white students. The governor, Orval Faubus, sent the state’s National Guard to stop them. In response, President Eisenhower sent federal troops to ensure their entry. In other words, Black students’ effort to secure an equitable education resulted in a military operation.
This isn’t the lone example.
Sometimes the federal government isn’t an ally or doesn’t intervene. State national guards have often been deployed to quell Black activists, who have become soldiers in this undeclared, nearly 150-year war. As recently as 2014, in Missouri, the state national guard was sent to intimidate peaceful protestors in Ferguson. Elected officials often call for military intervention to address gang violence in Chicago without any acknowledgement that it stems directly from decades of divestment in the communities struggling the most. Each day, somewhere in the US, police use actual arms and gear they received from the military to abuse, harass, and kill Black people who are treated as enemies of the state.
So it is not just a metaphor. The US has and will use the actual military — and its militaristic agencies and resources — against its own people.
America’s homegrown enemies’ list
Black people aren’t always America’s only enemies.
The US is at war with the health of its people. The mounting carnage from the hypocrisy and failures of our government are almost too much to bear. I am mourning lives lost to COVID-19, a pandemic the US could have controlled. And I know I am not alone in feeling the psychological toll that a barrage of attacks on reproductive rights and gender identity has taken.
The US is at war with its own history. Refusal to extinguish the lies of a stolen election and the absurdity of replacement theory have taken white-conservative hate to new heights and endangered those of us who aren’t white. Critical race theory is under fire every day. The effort to ban books that challenge the narrative of the (white) American Dream feels like a ceaseless attack.
The US is at war with its citizens who aren’t wealthy. While the pandemic made the rich even richer, many of us continue to struggle to be paid a living wage for our labor, pay inflated prices for food and gas, and watch helplessly as the global fallout of the Russian invasion of Ukraine makes everyday life even more difficult to handle. Student-loan forgiveness gets treated like a carrot dangling in front of the ballot box, collecting votes that might not count despite our repeated battles for the franchise for all.
The US is in a series of civil wars with its own people, people who have been historically marginalized and have had less — or no — power. Black people and other people of color. Women. The disabled. The economically disempowered. Essentially anyone who is not a white cis man with means. Including, and especially, as the horrific and heartbreaking events in Uvalde, Texas, reminded us, children and youth.
For me, every aspect of these wars has been traumatic. I am grieving. I am grieving Black people gunned down at a grocery store and children being trapped and killed in their school. I am grieving women and young girls who are constantly being told they don’t control their own bodies. I am grieving loved ones lost for pandemic-related reasons. I am grieving those who are no longer with us because of state, war-like violence, including George Floyd, who was murdered by Minneapolis police officers this very same week only two years ago.
Memorials for the people
There is a lot to memorialize this weekend.
Although there remains a debate about who started the very first Memorial Day, one thing each apparent first observance included was the decoration of soldiers’ graves with items like flowers and flags. In fact, Memorial Day was initially called Decoration Day because it was a time to conduct this ritual.
In this way, public memorials might be thought of as symbolic community grave markers where we can pay our respects and, perhaps, leave offerings at the altars of those who have been casualties in these ongoing, undeclared wars.
So this year, as part of my revised Memorial Day remembrances, I am revisiting the memorials of folks we have lost to state-sanctioned and vigilante violence, which are both rooted in a false belief in racial hierarchy where whiteness occupies the top.
Some of these include:
Police Torture Memorial Chicago
Tree of Life Synagogue Memorial
Equal Justice Institute Memorial for Peace and Justice
Each of the people honored in these spaces is a fallen soldier, in an army none of them intended to enlist in, fighting in a war none of them started. But sometimes, as the old gospel-rooted freedom song goes:
We [must be] soldiers . . . in the army. We have to fight, although we have to cry.
We have to hold up the freedom banner. We have to hold it up until we die.
I am able to draw on the strength of Black joy and the history of Black resistance so as not to be consumed by grief. This is not a war we chose to start, but it’s one we are charged with finishing. And we will. Our tactics have been many: We have fought back with nonviolent protests and with self-defense. We have resisted by filing lawsuits, in creating scholarship, and through community-building. We have changed narratives through mainstream, popular, and social media. We have instituted internal reforms, initiated partnerships, and organized to change local, state, and federal policies. We have and continue to soldier on — valiantly. And in the process, we must honor all of our dead, including those we have lost in wars the US has waged but never declared.
So let this Memorial Day be a moment to remember everyone we have lost in all the wars of varying kinds the US engages in, those recognized and those not. Perhaps in this remembering we can work toward a day when we no longer have to be soldiers.