For Memorial Day weekend, a lot of my family gathers at my parents’ home, where cousins swim, yard games are played, and huge meals are prepared by many hands. This morning, around a table littered with breakfast remnants, the adults sat, forks in hand, unceremoniously sharing a large bowl of watermelon. It was delicious, so firm as to be almost crunchy, with a depth of sweetness so refreshing I felt my body acknowledge that summer had, in fact, arrived.
My husband expresses his delight in food with what I call aggressive affirmation. It is not uncommon for him to throw a napkin, slam his hands on a table, or curse loudly when he tastes something he likes. “Are you kidding me? D#mn!” “Holy Sh?t! Does it get any better than this??” This morning, slapping his napkin, he asked, “How do you always have the best watermelon?”
My parents plant, cultivate and harvest a huge garden with their neighbors (#lifegoals), and they know a thing or two about growth. “I pick the best because I check the bottom to make sure it’s yellow. It means it sat in the dirt for a while to ripen. They didn’t pick it too early. If you find one with a little dried mud on it, even better.”
A national holiday set aside to the idea of remembering seems kind of fabulous to me, and I’d like to explore how our collective discolored bottom can shape American memory. Memory is a tricky thing. It is not fixed, not remembered in a vacuum, not fair. A friend of mine cracks me up when her kids come home venting about a teacher in school. She listens, waits a beat, then says, “I wonder how your teacher would tell this story?” You see what she did there! She reminds them their version is not the only, and might even be the least trustworthy one.
Memories best reflect the past when they are contextualized with other memories. Postmodern literature gets a bad rap among many Christians and conservatives for “playing with the truth.” From my perspectives, postmodern thinking is incredibly helpful in getting at the nature of memory. Single stories do not accurately describe people, just as single storytellers cannot capture the all of an experience. We need multiple narrators in order to capture all the facets of light.
My sister and her husband arrived this weekend directly from our nation’s capitol. Having visited the American museum, they were thinking about the stories we tell ourselves about what it means to be an American. Should a few generous white folks who helped free slaves and fund their independent businesses be used to contextualize the terrible cruelty of the government and church sanctioned system of white supremacy and slavery? Yes, I think so. Should it be given equal weight in a way that diminishes the evil grip slavery had and has on our American psyche? Not a chance.
Should the fact that Andrew Jackson adopted a Native American child be used to contextualize our understanding of the man who slaughtered natives and forced the Trail of Tears? Yes, I think so. Should that fact erase or minimize the devastating impact his leadership had on the lives of indigenous Americans? Not a chance.
Many of us are struggling this weekend with the new AG Sessions’ policy that ICE criminally charge any adult who crosses our border illegally, separating their kids from them in the process, sometimes permanently. I have seen many pleas from heartbroken people who cry, “This cannot be happening in America! This is not who we are.” These pleas evoke American ideals of compassion and generosity, and try to remind us that we are a people of justice, a beacon of humane morality for the world. This notion exists because of the tricky nature of memory. A robust telling of our history would remind us that American land was established, American wealth was created and American power has grown precisely through the forced removal of kids from their parents through the systemic dehumanization of slaves, native peoples, and immigrants.
I say this as a proud American. I recognize that acknowledging our history of evil practices is considered unpatriotic; however, I work very hard to seek our entire history, and I feel most patriotic when I acknowledge the good with the bad. The American ideals of bravery and sacrifice are worth celebrating on Memorial Day. It is incredible that we could create a government by, for and of the people, established on the principal that we are all equal and worthy of sharing the dream together. I propose that it is does not diminish that idea in the least for us to admit that we were lying about the implementation then, have struggled to make it true for over 200 years, and probably aren’t getting it right now. We set the bar really high! This Memorial Day, can we stop pretending we have consistently gotten it right? Can we instead celebrate by remembering and sharing all of our stories, even the tough ones?
It is easy to slice into a fabulous watermelon, slurping the juices down like a kid perched on a picnic table. It is harder to remember that the sweetest watermelons are formed in the dirt. This Memorial Day, I remember the good and the bad. I celebrate the fact that so many men in my family were honorable soldiers, airmen, sailors and marines. But I also need to remember that many of them developed terrible addictions, didn’t get to meet their own kids until they were toddlers, or had wives who sacrificed their parenting partner, going it alone the majority of the time. When I think about honoring my ancestors, my country, our legacy as Americans, I hope and pray I model their bravery enough to remember all of it. If the only American History we memorialize is of good guys with guns in their hands, courage in their steps and stars in their eyes, then we forget how easily we can betray the sacrifices they made. As Bono, of U2 sings, “It’s not a place / This country is to me a thought / That offers grace / For every welcome that is sought…It’s not a place / This is a dream the whole world owns / The pilgrim’s face / It had your heart to call her home...There’s a promise in the heart of every good dream / It’s a call to action, not to fantasy / The end of a dream, the start of what’s real / Let it be unity, let it be community / For refugees like you and me / A country to receive us.”
Let’s celebrate the real America, ripening in the dirt, not the fantasy that blinds us to the work we need to do to honor the legacies of the best who came before us. Happy Memorial Day.