While scrolling down my Facebook timeline over the long weekend, I noticed statuses, such as “Memorial Day was not made for us” and “this holiday is not really about us” by my friends of color.
And I realized that these statuses both reflect the times we’re in - and reveal an unfortunate lack of exposure to the role that Black people have played in the formation of several of the nation’s most important holidays – and that one very effective way to keep us separate is to always present African American history as a single narrative instead of as part of a collective story.
Memorial Day originated as a way to honor those slain in the US civil war and in one of the earliest commemorations, on May, 1st, 1865, thousands of Black men, women, and children marched to a place called Martyrs of the Race Course, where 250 Union soldiers had been buried in unmarked graves. An old race track had been turned into a mass grave, and this group of former slaves from Charleston, South Carolina sang John Brown’s Body in honor of the martyrs who had fought for their freedom.
If you’ve never heard this story, that’s ok, because I hadn’t either. I’d never heard it mentioned in a classroom or by the media: it was White-washed from history.
It unsettles me to realize that large portions of our society may feel left out of holidays meant to honor everyone’s sacrifice, and that much of our history has been oversimplified to work for political agendas instead of unity. It leaves me wondering how we can ever possibly hope to build peace if we don’t know our past history of shared peacebuilding.
If we can’t acknowledge the times we’ve already celebrated and appreciated the humanity in one another, then all we’ll have left are the times we did not. For that reason, we must realize that Black history is not solely about the Black civil rights movement. It’s also about the complicated relationship that minority communities have with the majority community in the United States.
Instead of creating false dystopian single narratives because they’re easy to follow in the media, we must insist on reclaiming the complete, inclusive history behind the national anniversaries we hold so dear – especially when they’re in honor those who died to create and defend that nation.