What we are to remember on Memorial Day is sometimes hard to recall. If I’m not mistaken, this holiday used to be called Decoration Day, a day when Sunnyland Slim tickled the black notes and sang the blues for his dear, departed Freddie Lee every year. “I never will forget about my Freddie Lee, I sing the blues for her on Eh-eh-EV-ry Deh-CO-ray-ZHJUN Day” he sang off the DJ copy of the LP my father had in his collection. You can hear a few bars of it, with great sax by King Curtis, here (track 6). Somebody my father knew in college, probably one of the college station’s DJs, laid it on young Irv, knowing he was passionate about the Human Rights of the Negro and other underdogs and a lover of race music.
My father attended college after World War II on the GI bill and for the first time in his life, I think, was widely recognized for his intelligence. He did well at Syracuse and enrolled in a doctoral program in history at Columbia University. Somewhere along the way he picked up the Sunnyland Slim album and a couple of early King Curtis records, as well as some by John Coltrane and Eric Dolphy. I never heard him listen to anything but Sam Cooke and cantorial music on the stereo at home, but these were definitely his records I listened to in the basement of that long-ago sold house in Queens.
Slim’s Shout, the album was called, probably the only LP recorded by the piano player. (The internet shoots this theory to hell, the album was released in 1960– years after my father’s college days ended. It is also one of several LPs Sunnyland Slim recorded during his long life. The instant genius memory of the internet also informs us that the tune Slim sings with such conviction about his Freddie Lee was written by Sonny Boy Williamson II. Presumably Freddie Lee was the other bluesman’s lost woman.)
What we remember on Memorial Day– the lives men and women in uniform gave up fighting in wars. We remember their sacrifice, the ‘ultimate sacrifice’, as it is usually styled. Some of these soldiers, sailors, fliers, fought to keep our nation safe and secure. Many were heroes. Many were not, nor did they die fighting to keep The Home of the Brave free to those able to fully enjoy the pursuit of happiness; they fought in human terror, trying to stay alive and not managing it.
What we do not remember on Memorial Day– the hellish hideousness of war. That few wars make any sense, except in the cruel calculus of those intent on remaining in power. That most of the men and women who die in wars do not go into harm’s way voluntarily. Many over the centuries were conscripted, others, for lack of a better choice, join an army they could be shot for deserting. Heroism and cowardice, and patriotism, and keeping the world safe for democracy, or opposing a series of modern day Hitlers large and small, have very little to do with most war or most of the people killed in war.
Decoration Day, Wikipedia informs us, began after the Civil War when families would go to cemeteries all over the country to decorate the graves of the fallen. The Civil War, our simplified history teaches us, was fought to keep this great nation whole and to free the slaves. It is only in an advanced placement high school course that students may learn about the Draft Riots in New York City, a pogrom during which blacks were hung from lamp posts and the national guard fought the enraged white citizens driven mad by the fact that the rich could buy their way out of this bloodbath while the poor were conscripted to fight for the rights of southern blacks held as property, who, once freed, would be competitors for the scarce work these poor whites were looking for.
Memorial Day is also not the day to remember that the wealthy men who began the Civil War, those aristocrats romanticized history sometimes calls “The Planters”, who painted the destroyed landscape of the American south with the blood of Americans, were deemed to have suffered enough by the loss of their slaves. The forty acres and a mule that idealistic Americans thought were the least the freed slaves should be given, well, would you settle for Black Codes, you special favorites of the law?
I recently found a paper which had somehow worked its way to the top of a table, a page I photocopied more than a decade and a half ago, when I was a law student trying to make sense of the history of American racism at law. The unknown author wrote of the debate in Congress after the Civil War, men like Thaddeus Stevens advocated seizing the millions of acres owned by the Planters, a few hundred people, and distributing it to the millions of freed slaves and poor whites, to make them self-sufficient and to ensure that the sacrifices of the war would not have been made in vain.
The wealthiest hundred families in the former Confederacy moved swiftly to make sure only their wartime sacrifices would not be in vain. A few decades later history would be written to show that the South had been betrayed by vicious Northerners, a partial excuse for the many blacks burnt and/or hanging from trees in those years. One of the things those vicious Northerners did not manage to do was to give the freed slaves a fighting chance in the former confederacy, or at law, the laudable intentions of the Thirteenth (ended slavery), Fourteenth (US Citizens have guaranteed civil rights) and Fifteenth (Black men may vote– unless not allowed to) Amendments notwithstanding. A series of infuriating and irrefutable Supreme Court decisions ensured that a century of Black Codes, racism at law and lynching would not be hampered by Constitutional Amendments ratified by the former Confederacy (in exchange for federal aid to rebuild their infrastructure) virtually at gun point.
It is a shameful history, and in one important sense not very different from the history we are living today, when the richest few families in the country own more than the vast majority of the rest of the citizens combined, where they purchase the legislation necessary to keep their privileges and advantages in place, thank you. Where wars are fought by the poor for the benefit of those who used to be called War Profiteers.
Let us not forget: you can get a good deal on a mattress on Memorial Day. The malls are packed. Beaches open for business tomorrow. The summer begins. Take a moment, as you are enjoying your freedom, to remember the men and women who gave their lives so that you could barbecue, watch TV, pursue happiness, go to the beach, and live proudly in the land of the free and the home of the brave.
And remember, while thanking the war dead, to thank those wise politicians who abolished conscription and moved this nation to an all-volunteer army. That went a long way toward our nation being able to whole-heartedly support our troops by cheering any war these brave, hapless soldiers are sent to fight and die in.
Next year we will remember those additional brave men and women who fall at the hands of those pretending to be our allies, the many soldiers who fall by their own hands, as well as those killed in unwinnable combat with a hazy and implacable enemy who hates our freedom.