What Memorial Day can Teach Black America about Mental Health

Chandra White-Cummings, Managing Editor 



Image from History.com 

Image from History.com 

History, like suffering, can teach lessons that cannot be learned any other way. For Black America, history and suffering sometimes seem synonymous similar to how America sometimes seems synonymous with ‘white’. Memorial Day is customarily a time when observers remember both the history of Americans’ fighting in and dying during military service to this country. We are encouraged to honor the memory and lives of those who ‘made the ultimate sacrifice’ for the benefit and preservation of freedom and liberty. But do we remember sacrifices made by all Americans? Are African Americans part of the national narrative of bravery, heroism, and honor? Maybe, but much more credit and inclusion of blacks’ contributions to the victories won in the name of freedom is due. And there’s no better way to do that than by consulting history about the origins of Memorial Day and the legacy of the first black soldiers who served both in service to, and resistance against, this country.

Historians credit General John A. Logan, a commander during the Civil War and founder of the Grand Army of the Republic, with being the creator of Memorial Day. On May 5, 1868, he issued a document titled, General Orders No. 11, designating May 30, 1868 as a day “…for the purpose of…decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion.” The document goes on to herald the memory of civil war (particularly Union) soldiers: “Their soldier lives were the reveille of freedom to a race in chains, and their deaths the tattoo of rebellious tyranny in arms.” General Logan was a secessionist, not an abolitionist, whose interest was in preserving the union of the states, not the freedom of black Americans, and even this attempt to unify white soldiers as the war wound down was met with the characteristic recalcitrant contrariness of the Confederacy; they refused to join the commemoration until after World War I when the nation began a uniform observance. Eight states still maintain separate days to honor those who died fighting to preserve the confederacy: Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas.

The reference to those soldiers whose actions benefitted the ‘race in chains’ makes the case that the black fighters who fought for their freedom and the freedom of their families and neighbors are not included in the poetic and touching call to remembrance and honor. Absent seems to be any acknowledgment of the first black Union soldiers organized to fight in March of 1862, formerly and very recently enslaved men recruited from tenement communes referred to as ‘refugee camps’ in South Carolina. These are the same soldiers who later became Company A, First South Carolina Volunteer Infantry, the longest-serving African-American military unit in the Civil War. 

Even during the harrowing times of that war, when they could have easily been shot down by their fellow white Union soldiers in not-so-friendly fire, these men fought with a courage and determination that inspired their commander Colonel Thomas Wentworth Higginson to write of their legacy in his memoir, Army Life in a Black Regiment, “Till the blacks were armed, there was no guarantee of their freedom. It was their demeanor under arms that shamed the nation into recognizing them as men.” Their persistence during an intense campaign in Jacksonville in which they held off Confederate troops for three weeks spurred Abraham Lincoln to lift his previous sanction against allowing black soldiers in combat and is described by historians and biographers as a tide -turning event of the entire Civil War.

What about that history lesson? Every good lesson begins with a provocative question, so we ask ourselves, What kind of people can join a war that is at best intended to benefit them only collaterally by those who wage it on both sides of the issues? What frees the minds of men and enables them to volunteer for a cause when just a few weeks before signing up for battle they were laboring under the tyranny of a society in scandalous rebellion against the God who created them all? How do oppressed people become champions and heroes of their own deliverance?
This type of legacy can only be forged by people who can strike the delicate mental balance of remembering and forgetting.

It is the most beautiful of minds that can remember the struggle but forget the pain and limitations of that struggle. People who have the mental and emotional skill and fortitude to distinguish between circumstances and themselves are the ones who will be prepared to fight for missing black children, win policy changes that put less of our people in prison, and plug up that school-to-prison pipeline. The collective mental health of black America depends in large part on developing a mindset that allows construction of a wall high and broad between the situations that challenge and the systems designed to subjugate, and the inner essence of who we are. Mass incarceration is happening to us and coming against us; but it is not who we are. The attack on voting rights and the people orchestrating those attacks, are situations but they do not define who black America is. 

Black America also does well to understand that resistance is sometimes its own victory. The men of those Jacksonville regiments did not prevail against Confederate troops by storming their camps and exerting superior force. They held their position and resisted the advance of the opposition. And they sustained that resistance for three weeks. Sustained resistance requires a mental commitment to persevere at all costs and accepting that injuries and casualties will happen during the course of that resistance. Resistance also requires mental and emotional regulation.

Considering the lives and deaths of soldiers like those of Company A challenges us to now be bold in our rejection of stigma and pursuit of mental health. Embracing the humility necessary to seek help from friends, family, and professionals takes on new meaning when viewed in the context of individual health for collective strength. Anyone who asks for help should receive it. Those who can help should provide it. Solutions-oriented conversations about challenges and illness should be encouraged and applauded. Resources should be identified and shared.

This Memorial Day remember men and women like those Civil War heroes and commit to protecting and strengthening mental health.