‘They have taken our Memorial Day and gone.’ My riff on a poem by Langston Hughes, “They have taken my blues and gone…” returns to Hughes’ consideration that the unique form of melodic memory that constituted the blues experienced a decidedly pitiful shift in purpose and design. Today, following a litany of losses, and punctuated by the terror of Uvalde, Texas, I think of Hughes’ litany as a mourning story.
Once, it was our children who were the celebrated dead of Memorial Days past. Those boys and girls, men and women, who volunteered or were drafted into national service for the Civil War, and then later wars, were remembered first by African American communities who dedicated a day of remembrance. Memorial Day was a Black American invention. We visited gravesites, left flowers and tokens, shared stories, made home altars and wrapped photographs of lost sons and daughters with dramatically draped flags and memorabilia. We shared our habit and were generous with our craft. This was, we knew, OUR American story.
Today these beginnings are hazy. Instead, small hearts and crosses seem to blossom out of grassy landscapes around emptied schools. Memorial committees consider how to mark one million lives lost to COVID, parents and grandparents mourn children gone wrong, gone hopeless, gone heartless, gone missing. And we who are left are tasked to collect these dead into a day of Memorial.
I resist. Today the task is too grievous, the blame too widespread, the callousness and differential value of lives too starkly displayed. We have not done the work of introspection. We have not valued our children enough to save their lives. So today, nearly 15 years after I offered the Sanskrit word “vilomah” as a name for a parent who has lost a child, I stand here ironing, like Tillie Olsen, trying to smooth out the corners of a frayed but valued fabric of American lives, American dreaming, American promise. It is a worn and wrinkled cloth, it has been used and abused; but—nevertheless it is ours to stitch back into cloth that does not feel like a winding sheet. Take up the task. Take on the duties of democratic citizenship.