Those of us who are burdened with a sense of despair, as I am, now that I’m forced to recognize the foundational nature of violence in our culture—may choose to ignore the wreaths, bouquets and small U.S. flags that will be used to decorate many graves.
Memorial Day, commenced in 1866 as Decoration Day, was at first specifically meant to honor the Confederate dead; when it became a national holiday in 1921, it was renamed to honor the dead in all our wars, another effort to erase differences and commodify mourning.
It’s a particularly poignant moment for me as I finish my biography of Doris Duke—who certainly supported what she viewed as a patriotic war, World War Two—and launch into the opening chapters of the memoir I’m calling Little Brother. Jonathan Bingham, my little brother, died at 22 and is buried in the family plot at Cave Hill Cemetery in Louisville. There will be no flags and probably no wreaths or flowers on his grave.
He died at the age when many young men die in our wars, at about the age of the idealized statue of a Confederate soldier who since 1921 has stood guard on a tall monument near the entrance to the University of Louisville.
This university has long attracted a substantial minority of African-American students. The diversity committee recently persuaded the president to initiate a plan to remove the 70-foot high statue, which students who are descendants of slaves must pass every day on their way to class.
The proposal aroused the predictable uproar of opposition, as similar efforts to remove Confederate symbols have aroused all over the south. The push started after one of our most recent acts of violence left seven black church goers murdered in their sanctuary by a white racist.
The Louisville circuit court judge issued a temporary restraining order, protecting the statue, which she rescinded a few days ago, allowing for its removal, which the mayor has promised will be set up in a “more appropriate place.”
That place may be hard to find in an increasingly diverse state that is still shadowed by a romantic heritage that made Bowling Green, Kentucky, the capital of that part of the state that supported the Confederacy even while the rest of the state supported the Union.
It is sad to think that some supporters believe that this Confederate monument is a “symbol of the South’s history and culture.”
Is this mundane work, with its dark associations, really all the Old South had to offer? After all, there were also the works of Walter Scott, some notions about nineteenth-century poetry, and a lot of beautiful old houses…
At least, now, the statue will come down, and the furor, like all furors, will pass. But it seems to me that on this Memorial Day we are really commemorating—if we commemorate anything at all with American flags and baskets of fried chicken—the glossing-over of our history of violence.
Perhaps that’s the only way our history becomes bearable.
[For more on the statue’s removal, please see the story in the Louisville Courier-Journal]