WHAT DOES MEMORIAL DAY REPRESENT FOR AFRICAN-AMERICANS?

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[Memorial Day]
African-Americans are cited as having been the first to commemorate what would become Memorial Day, though it has now been fully co-opted by white America.
Photo: Tuskegee Airmen.org

Some of the infamous Tuskegee Airmen who fought the Nazis--and white American racism.

Today, millions of Americans are commemorating Memorial Day. The current holiday is, ostensibly, about honoring and mourning American veterans who died serving during the nation’s numerous wars.

Once again, we will hear grandstanding speeches idolizing the legions of brave fallen soldiers, while glorifying so-called “American exceptionalism.” Americans will be eating ketchup-filled hamburgers—with little or no conception of all the blood that flowed from those we’re supposed to be celebrating.

For African-Americans there is another crucial question to consider: what does Memorial Day really mean for us?

African-Americans have fought in every war in this country from the Revolutionary War to the present. Yet, African-Americans have benefitted far less than Whites for our efforts—while sacrificing far more. In 2020, we can see that not much has changed. Black family net wealth is 10% that of white families.

Ironically, like so many things in America, African-Americans are cited as having been the first to commemorate what would become Memorial Day, though it has now been fully co-opted by white America. Free Blacks in Charleston, South Carolina were recorded as the first to do so with their celebration after the Civil War ended in 1865. But even this history is ignored by white America, just as they ignore the role the Black soldier played in American history.

The Equal Justice Initiative, in their “Lynching in America: Targeting Black Veterans” report, said,“ Throughout our country’s history, African-Americans have looked hopefully to military service as a way to achieve racial equality and opportunity. But the dream that donning a military uniform and fighting for national honor would earn Black soldiers respect and human dignity conflicted with the status Black people in America had held for centuries—and often resulted in disappointment.”

Blacks have fought for so-called American “democracy” and “freedom” for centuries. No other soldier has given more to America. Yet, white America has failed to honor our military service and sacrifice—just as they have failed to honor our sacrifices during slavery, which made this country an economic superpower.

On Memorial Day 2020, as COVID-19 ravages many Black working-class and impoverished communities with suffering and death, we remain second-class citizens at best.

One of the biggest lies Americans perpetuate is that, somehow, we care so much about our veterans. That isn’t even remotely true—particularly, if those veterans are Black.

A few quick facts to consider.

According to the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness, “on any given day, an estimated 40,056 Veterans experience homelessness in America.” And according to the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans (NCHV), “About 1.4 million other veterans, meanwhile, are considered at risk of homelessness due to poverty.”

According to NCHV, “Roughly 45% of all homeless veterans are African-American or Hispanic, despite only accounting for 10.4% and 3.4% of the U.S. veteran population, respectively.” NCHV also says “African-American veterans make up 35.1% of the homeless veteran population.”

How can America pretend it cares about veterans with these kinds of statistics?

In recent years, we’ve heard a lot of insincere rhetoric from Republicans, like Trump about “supporting the troops.” Colin Kaepernick’s principled stance to shine the spotlight on police brutality was fraudulently twisted into disrespect for veterans. Not surprisingly, none of these right-wing politicians said anything when Black veterans were being killed and murdered, by police.

A few examples to remember.

On October 27, 2011, Army veteran Elliott Earl Williams, 36-37, died in police custody—after lying crippled, on the floor, for days in an Oklahoma jail cell. He had suffered a spine injury when he was beaten and arrested by police on October 21.

The very next month, in White Plains, New York, Marine veteran Kenneth Chamberlain Sr., 68, was fatally shot on November 19, 2011, by police inside his home—like Breonna Taylor, Atatiana Jefferson, and Botham Jean—after being reportedly called "nigger" by Officer Steven Hart.

On March 9, 2015 Air Force veteran Anthony Hill, 26, was shot dead—while fully naked—in Georgia, by officer Robert Olsen, who claimed he, you got it, feared for his life.

And, recently, we saw the killing of former Air Force veteran Dreasjon Reed, 21, by Indianapolis police. One officer was recorded saying, "I think it's going to be a closed casket, homie."

Why didn’t the violent killings of these Black veterans loosen the lips of these hypocritical politicians?

Of course, Black veterans have always faced violence from white America. As the Equal Justice Initiative report stated “No one was more at risk of experiencing violence and targeted racial terror than Black veterans who had proven their valor and courage as soldiers during the Civil War, World War I, and World War II.”

One particularly harrowing historic example is the story of decorated African-American World War II veteran Sgt. Isaac Woodard Jr. On February 12, 1946, a few hours after being honorable discharged, Sgt. Woodard was viciously attacked—while wearing his full uniform—in South Carolina. He was beaten by policemen, in Batesburg, including by police Chief Lynwood Shull. Sgt. Woodard was blinded—when his eyes were gouged out. Sgt. Woodard died in 1992.

The historical record is filled with other stories of the disrespect, and animosity, Black soldiers face from white America. The stories of Black soldiers, like Sgt. Woodard, aren’t cited when white America commemorates the Memorial Day we started.

Black Americans should commemorate our Black soldiers. However, current Memorial Day celebrations do no justice to them. Moreover, today's Memorial Day stands for the imperial aggression this country has visited on many sovereign nations. Given what African-Americans have endured by the hands of white America we should reflect seriously on this.

On Memorial Day, Black Americans should remember all of our collective suffering in totality. We should remember the suffering of Black soldiers--as well as what we endured during the Black Holocaust, Middle Passage, and Plantation enslavement here in white America.

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