Monday, May 26, 2014

Before Memorial Day Was Militarized There Was Decoration Day

Today I will go to Mt. Peace cemetery, clean everyone's gravesite and have a picnic.  I will not be alone.  The cemetery will be full of African-Americans, white Appalachians, and others who have
picked up the habit of Decoration Day. The lawn will be littered with picnic baskets and little chairs.  Relations chatting and enjoying the presence of the dearly departed.  Before there was a Memorial Day, upland Southern folk celebrated a late spring holiday where we cleaned and decorated the graves of our ancestors (Hansen, Arkansas Review, 2009) so I am always disconcerted by the militaristic tone of Memorial Day, not in small part because so many have died to violence, their lives unacknowledged.

Recently I went to Tennessee looking for the grave of Ed and Ora Gooden, the grandparents of my cousins, whose son plays a prominent role in my manuscript, Love's Bright Fire.  Really, I was looking for the son, Albert, and figured he had been buried near where his parents would later rest.  It was near the end of March, I was happy to escape the endless cold that had settled over Akron during the winter 2014.  I went in secret -- I didn't want to talk about my goal, which was two-fold, to find Albert's true death location, the site of his murder,  as well as where he had been buried in 1937.

I drove from Memphis to Tipton County,  just outside Mason, past the recently planted cotton.  It is most pretty as it just reaches it's full height, tiny buds forming that will burst open into the white fruit that will become the t-shirts, pants, tablecloths we take for granted in our daily life. The green of the young plant is quite seductive, not unlike the green cauliflower -- a little lime, a lot of light.  Other things were growing, soybean, corn, but cotton always catches my eye.

There are two Belmont cemeteries, one white and one Black.  Ora and Ed are buried in the one the Goodens owned and managed for years.  I pulled off of Belmont Road onto Old Route 59.  Some men
were trying to complete the burial of a Gooden cousin.   They were stymied by the numerous unmarked graves.  The gravediggers were happy to spend some time chatting, giving me the tour.  There were many handmade grave markers, poured cement with the carefully etched name of the deceased. establishing I was from out of town, but familiar.

Ora was easy to find.  Ed is unmarked, as is Albert.  I knew my responsibility.  I left to buy gardening tools and flowers.  Ora's tombstone had sunk deep into the turf.  The dates of her birth and death obscured.  I dug as deep as I could with the hand trowel, tore away the turf.  Mr. Melvin Johnson ("Ah Yes, you the Hickory Withe Johnsons.  The bright Johnsons, as opposed to the dark Johnsons.  But we are all cousins, right?") told me that there were many Goodens interned without
The Light Wasn't Great: Ora Gooden
markers.  I could just make out the contours of some of the plots.   He said they would all be buried facing east, "you know, for the resurrection."  I could just make out the contours of some of the plots.

May 30, 2011 Op-Ed NY Times, Owen Freeman
I understand the impetus, almost 150 years ago, for the celebration by the recently liberated slaves in
Charleston SC, their need to memorialize the valiant dead who had made their freedom possible.  I don't want to forget the time before Decoration Day became militarized, used as a justification for all kinds of military adventures, and as a justification for white, southern grievances against those freed people.

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