What Is Remembered, Lives

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Today unofficially begins Memorial Day weekend. We Pagans honor our ancestors throughout the year, but this weekend is a time to especially remember our ancestors who died in service to their country. Military ancestors, of course, but I also think of those who died fighting for equal rights, protesting America’s wars, fighting fires, treating the sick.

Michael Twitty‘s column in The Guardian tells the story of the first Memorial Day and its basis in African Diaspora religion:

[T]he [enslaved] Gullah [people] developed their own language, a unique syncretic religion blending African and Christian elements, a food culture that birthed Lowcountry foodways as we know them, and they preserved names, stories, traditions and customs from across the African continent. One of the most important rituals that they preserved and passed on was the honoring of the ancestral dead and giving proper due to those transitioning out of this world.

***

And, on 1 May 1865, they performed an act of gratitude to the country that had first enslaved and finally freed them, firmly based both in their African and American heritage that became part of what we now celebrate as Memorial Day.

As the war ended, behind the Italianate grandstand at Charleston’s Washington Race course – which, in the pre-war years had been the playground of the rice and cotton planter elite – there was a mass grave holding over 200 Union soldiers, because the track served an outdoor prison during the last year of the war and many prisoners died of disease and exposure. At the war’s end, after the city was surrendered to African American troops and largely abandoned by whites, the Gullah people were ready to begin facing a new reality of emancipation – but first they chose to pay homage to those who had died.

In the West African tradition from which Charleston’s Gullah people came, honorable warriors deserved sacred burial, and the dead were seen as part of a cycle of souls entering and leaving the world. To disrespect those dead was to ensure a negative energy in the future, so 28 Gullah men dug up the 200 men in that mass grave behind the grandstand and gave them proper burial – horrific work under the best of circumstances.

On 1 May, “in cooperation with white missionaries and teachers”, 3,000 black children bearing roses led women bearing wreaths and men, marching together in a circle to honor the newly-buried war dead. Black troops were present at the commemoration – including some of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry (who were later memorialized in the movie Glory). That the Gullah people performed a march and parade in a circle was no accident: movement in a circle – the Ring Shout – was the most sacred rite brought by the enslaved to North America. In a mixture of African and American custom, the Gullah put to rest the Union soldiers, who in part, lost their lives to ensure the freedom of those who later marched for them.

***

Three years later, just days before Major General John A Logan declared that 30 May 1868 should be a “Decoration Day” to commemorate the war dead, many of the people who participated in the 1865 ceremony returned to decorate the graves of those that they’d interred. America takes time each year to celebrate the sacrifices of our war dead; this year, we should take a moment to also honor those who, despite facing hardships of their own, chose to commemorate the lives that had been lost partly in the service of securing their freedom from enslavement.

I had no idea.

Picture found here.

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