The holiday emerged from the Civil War as a celebration almost exclusively for veterans of the Union Army to remember those who had died. Veterans and their families from Confederate states held their own celebrations. Thus, it remains fraught with conflict and ambiguity.
In 2017, seven states – Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia – chose to also celebrate some form of Confederate Memorial Day. It’s usually celebrated on April 26 – the day associated with the surrender of General Joe Johnston, nine days after General Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox at the end of the Civil War.
Tension between North and South remains. We see it not only on days dedicated to remembrance. It surfaces daily as communities such as New Orleans wrestle with whether or not to keep memorial statues honoring Confederate leaders like Robert E. Lee.
One poet who does not ignore these divides is Yusef Komunyakaa, an Army veteran who served in Vietnam from 1969 to 1970 and earned a Bronze Star. He is now a professor at New York University.
In “Facing It,” a poem about visiting the Vietnam War Memorial, Komunyakaa, an African-American, confronts the wall and issues linked to war and race. He writes:
“My black face fades / hiding inside the black granite.”
But he is also a veteran honoring those who died; he is balancing the pain of loss with the guilt of not being a name on the wall:
“I go down the 58,022 names, / half-expecting to find / my own in letters like smoke. / I touch the name Andrew Johnson; / I see the booby trap’s white flash.”
The poem ends with two powerful images that offer a glimmer of hope:
“A white vet’s image floats / closer to me, then his pale eyes / look through mine. I’m a window. / He’s lost his right arm / inside the stone. In the black mirror / a woman’s trying to erase names: / No, she’s brushing a boy’s hair.”
The image of the speaker becoming a “window” addresses how two vets, one white and one black, bridge the racial divide and become linked through shared acts of sacrifice and remembrance. Yet even with such a positive affirming metaphor, the speaker’s mind and heart are not fully at ease.
The next image creates dissonance and worry: Will the names be erased? The concluding line relieves that worry – the names are not being erased. More importantly, the final image of a simple act of caring calls to mind the sacrifices made to protect women and children by those whose names are on the wall. As a result, their image in the stone becomes a living memorial.
Memory and reflection
We can also learn from Brock Jones, an Army veteran who served three tours of duty in Iraq and one in Afghanistan. He named his award-winning book “Cenotaph,” the name for a tomb to honor those whose graves lie elsewhere. By using the name of a monument for those not present, a monument with historical ties to ancient Greece and Egypt as well as our own culture, Brock highlights how honoring the dead goes beyond culture and country.
Jones’ poems do not focus outward toward social strife, but inward. They address language’s inability to capture or express loss linked to memories of war. They also point to how those remaining alive, particularly those who have not served, might come to understand the depth of the sacrifice expressed by memorials and, by extension, Memorial Day.
In “Arkansas,” a poem that takes place at the Arkansas pillar, one of 56 pillars at the National WWII Memorial in Washington, D.C., the speaker remembers a journey with his grandfather:
“dead eight years ago this summer / to the Atlantic pavilion engraved / with foreign names he never forgot. / Bastogne. / Yeah, we was there. / St. Marie Eglise. / We was near there.”
The poem ends with the grandfather described as “a hunched figure, in front of ARKANSAS. Still, in front of ARKANSAS.” The grandfather is burdened by memories he carries, memories that render him “still” (motionless), memories that will remain with him “still.”
“Memorial from a Park Bench” offers a broader perspective, one that any visitor sitting on a bench in front of a memorial might experience. For the visitor, the memorial becomes “an opened book,” a place where “A word loses its ability to conjure / trapped inside a black mirror.”
The words are “names,” which “could be lines / of poems or a grocery list. / They could be just lines.” But they are not “just lines.”
At poem’s end, when all is contemplated, “Here are names and black stone / and your only reflection.”
Jones shifts the emotional and intellectual burden from the person on the bench to the poem’s readers, and thus to broader society. These words cannot be just lines or lists; they become, by being memorialized in a black stone, a “mirror,” the reader’s and thus society’s “reflection.” All on the bench are implicated; the names died for us, and, as a result, are us.
Memorial Day and mindfulness
Memorial Day may have “official” roots honoring Union dead, but veteran poets of recent wars serving a United States have found ways to honor all those who have died in battle.
Our country may be divided, but by taking a moment to pause and reflect on names etched on monument walls or gravestones, everyone on benches may see their own reflections, and in so doing further the task President Abraham Lincoln outlined in his 1865 Second Inaugural Address “to bind up the nation’s wounds…to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”
By being mindful, we might understand what Robert Dana, a WWII vet wrote in “At the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C.”: that “These lives once theirs / are now ours.”
From left, Reps. Gilda Cobb-Hunter, Leola Robinson Simpson, Annie McDaniel, Chandra Dillard, Rosalyn Henderson Myers, Patricia Henegan, Krystle Simmons and Wendy Brawley pose for a photo outside the House chamber at the Statehouse Wednesday, May 8, 2019 in Columbia, S.C. This is the first time in the state’s history that nine African American women are serving in the House of Representatives simultaneously. Not pictured is Rep. J. Anne Parks. (AP Photo/Christina Myers)
During the last week of this year’s legislative session in South Carolina, eight of the state’s nine African American women serving in the House gathered to record a historic moment.
This is the first time in the state’s history that nine African American women have served simultaneously in the House of Representatives, a moment shared among a sisterhood of women who say their primary mission is to serve and create positive change.
“I think we are uniquely situated to do that,” Rep. Wendy Brawley of Hopkins said of her eight African American female colleagues. “It’s the most that has ever served In the House at one time, and I think we can be and have been a formidable force.”
They wanted to take a photo near a portrait of Mary McLeod Bethune, the famous educator and stateswoman born a daughter of former slaves in Mayesville, South Carolina as a nod to how African American women have always had a significant impact on South Carolina’s history. And they also strive to have their own impact in the legislature.
Joining Brawley are Gilda Cobb-Hunter of Orangeburg, Chandra Dillard of Greenville, Rosalyn D. Henderson-Myers of Spartanburg, Patricia Henegan of Bennettsville, Annie E. McDaniel of Winnsboro, J. Anne Parks of Greenwood, Leola Robinson Simpson of Greenville, and Krystle Simmons of Ladson. They are women who serve all parts of the state, representing almost every industry including a magazine CEO, social worker, higher education administrators, attorney, retired educator and consultant, funeral director and engineer planner.
African American women have been serving in the South Carolina House for just 44 years. Juanita C.W. Goggins of York County was elected in 1975, serving for five years. Her achievements in improving education and public health paved the way for African American women to pick up the torch and serve behind her.
From left, Reps. Gilda Cobb-Hunter, Wendy Brawley and Krystle Simmons meet during recess inside the House chamber of the Statehouse in Columbia, S.C., on Tuesday, May 7, 2019. (AP Photo/Christina Myers)
“I don’t know if I digested how big this is,” Rep. Krystle Simmons said. “I just hope that little brown boys and girls, young girls, college age, I hope they look at me and say because of her, we can.”
Simmons just completed her first year in the legislature and the Ladson Democrat said she is not concerned about re-election but is instead focusing on inspiring young women and minorities to be civically engaged.
The mother of five has already left an impact on some lawmakers. When the issue of defunding Planned Parenthood came up, Simmons spoke of how she benefited from services other than abortion that the organization offers – such as parenting classes, which she attended after becoming a new mother.
After her remarks, some lawmakers approached her and expressed their support behind the scenes.
“There were so many that came up to me after that talk that said they wanted to be with me, but couldn’t,” Simmons said. “My problem is that you’re making an uneducated decision because you’re basing your decision off of hearsay.”
Simmons flipped her district, beating a Republican who has long held the seat.
One of the lawmakers made history of her own. Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter was given the honor in January of gaveling in the 123rd session of the South Carolina House as the longest serving member of the chamber. She is also the longest serving African American in the state’s history, elected in 1992 having spent years behind the scenes encouraging other women to run for office. The Orangeburg lawmaker said the House is not the same place it was when she started.
“I would like to see a return of actual debate of issues. I want to return to when we were more focused on substance than symbol,” Cobb-Hunter said. “I know that my value, my message is not for the 123 people sitting in that room.”
Recognizing the contributions of African Americans is important for the Orangeburg lawmaker who said she helped spearhead efforts to construct and dedicate the African American monument on the Statehouse grounds. That and the removal of the Confederate flag are vivid memories, both representing some progress in the state.
“Just the symbolism of that is just great,” Cobb-Hunter said of seeing an image of an empty pole laying on the Statehouse grounds in 2015. “That’s a vivid memory when we took the flag off the front lawn.”
Though some progress is evident in the position and power African Americans now hold in the Legislature, Brawley acknowledges there is still more work that needs to be done. The Hopkins lawmaker said the biggest challenge some of her colleagues face is navigating a system designed to help the people in power ignore legislation they don’t like with little accountability.
“Good ideas that can help advance the cause of South Carolina sit in a languishing committee because we are not willing to be nonpartisan enough to push good legislation,” Brawley said. “None of us are afraid to speak up and give voice to issues that will make a difference.”
And whether it was their first year or their 28th year in the Legislature, they are passionate about their service and the difference they can make.
“We have to fight. We’ve had to fight for everything we’ve got,” Brawley said. “I don’t see going to the General Assembly as lightening the load. It means the responsibility is probably going to be a little harder.”
Good parenting advice is hard to find. In fact, many of us have spent a lot more money than we’d like to admit on self-help books when all of the advice we’ve ever needed on being a great parent could be found right in the Bible. Enter the perfect resource for moms of the 21st Century: Successful Moms of the Bible.
Author Katara Washington Patton, a fellow mom-on-the-go, brings us an in-depth look at the stories of ten, strong women of the Bible who serve as great examples of being a successful mother by any means necessary.
“It’s based on biblical characters but it really is for contemporary moms,” Patton says about the first installment of her new 3-part series. Each chapter begins with an overarching lesson based on the stories of each biblical character.
“I really tried to mix it up,” Patton says. “Of course, I had to include my favorite, Ruth, so she came naturally, and of course, I had to include Mary, the mother of Jesus.”
Patton also included ladies that may be a bit less familiar, including Jochebed, the mother of Moses. Patton’s chapter on Jochebed embodies the concept of protecting your children at all costs. “That woman had guts,” she says. “She saved her son’s life!”
Although her goal was to share the stories of other moms, Successful Moms of the Bible also gives us a glimpse of Patton’s own close-knit relationship with her mother. “My mom died ten years ago in May, so writing about moms is very close and personal to me as we honor the 10-year anniversary of her death,” she says.
Patton says we can expect the other two books in the Successful series within the next several months. Successful Women of the Bible is scheduled for release in August 2016 and SuccessfulLeaders of the Bible, the third and final installment, will be available early 2017.
Whether you’re a teen mom, a divorced mom, a stepmom, a stay-at-home mom, a foster mother, a mother of a special-needs child, a mom who has lost a child, a mom who is struggling with addiction, or a perfectionist mom who’s realizing she’s not perfect, here’s the most important thing you can do to be a good mother …
This Sunday is Mother’s Day. If we’re not careful, this commemoration can go the way of other annual observances — like Earth Day, Columbus Day, and Presidents Day, to name a few — and become nothing more than a perfunctory nod dictated by the calendar. Moreover, with all the intense concern about teenage pregnancy, abortion, foster children, child abuse and neglect, and single parenting, the significance, honor, and privilege of motherhood can get lost in the mire. I’d like to make a concerted effort to not let that happen by sharing some thoughts and giving some shout-outs on motherhood.
Being a mother is a biological fact. Being a good mother is extremely challenging, especially in the face of so many competing priorities, societal pressures and cultural shifts. Everything from the price of diapers to how much water we drink can impact our effectiveness. And I’ll be honest, there are times when I’d rather not be a mom.
I have a reputation as a serious, self-sufficient girl and that often clashes mightily with the goofy antics of a teenager and the occasional depression of a chronically ill young adult. Right now my biggest private joke is what a motley crew my sons and I are: a prematurely menopausal woman, a hormonal teenager, and a twenty-something with a brain injury. Sometimes I count my blessings just to get everyone where they’re supposed to be, and that I haven’t given my oldest son my estrogen pills instead of his own medication. Did I mention I also have a teenager? Hmm … where was I??
Anyway, all of the pressure and responsibility sometimes weighs on me and distorts my view of what it really means to be a successful mom. I get caught up measuring myself against the typical litmus tests: attractive, winsome kids who are good students and active in many extracurricular pursuits, and who don’t smoke, drink, curse, or have sex, who are respectful of authority, and who love church and youth group; a family that follows an orderly but appropriately busy schedule; a great looking house that shows little to no evidence of children even being present … on and on it goes.
When I feel myself sinking under that load, I remember an internal conversation I had with the Lord when my oldest son was still in high school. Long story short, God reminded me that He’s looking for faithfulness, not perfection. For someone who profiles as a perfectionist on just about every personality assessment known to man, that’s a hard message to internalize. But I believe it, and I encourage other moms to believe and internalize it, too.
That leads me to my shout-outs.
To all the teenage or premature moms: It doesn’t matter so much how your journey of motherhood began, but it matters tremendously how you navigate through it, and how it ends up. Whether you’re 15, 17, or 22, be faithful. Love yourself and your children one day at a time, or one minute at a time if necessary.
To all the moms struggling against addictions and other life issues: Whether your bondage involves drugs, tobacco, sex, alcohol, partying, self-pity, shopping, depression, rejection and abandonment issues, dangerous relationships, or some combination of these, be faithful. Dig deep and change your focus from feeling better, to being better. Give your undivided attention to recovery so that your mothering can improve. And don’t be afraid to tell your kids your story.
To all the moms in difficult marriages: Having a bad husband or an unfulfilling relationship doesn’t mean you can forego your responsibilities to your children. Be faithful. If you have to read bedtime stories, review math homework, or braid hair with tears in your eyes, do it. The tears and your kids’ childhood will pass sooner than you think.
To all the stepmoms, play moms, foster moms, godmoms, and adoptive moms: Thanks for not letting the absence of a biological tie keep you from being faithful. You’re a wonderful example for us all.
To all the church mothers: Thanks for faithfully showing us the way to God like any good mother should.
To all the moms who have lost a child: Whether it was a miscarriage, an abortion, a stray bullet, friendly fire, an accident or something else that took your child from you, be faithful to remember that progeny and to thank God for the privilege of being the mother of that child.
To all the single moms: Even though you can’t be mother and father, be faithful. Pray hard, because their lives — and yours — depends on it. I’m a witness that God really is a father to the fatherless.
To the moms of special-needs children: You may not be able to cure their disease, raise their IQ, or prolong their life, but you can be faithful. Give them the best physical and emotional care you can, and you’ll have the peace of a job well done.
To all moms out there: Celebrate yourself this Mother’s Day. If you haven’t been as faithful as you should be, it’s not too late.
Standing at the pulpit of a Los Angeles Baptist church in 1972, Aretha Franklin — known more for hits like “Respect” and “Chain of Fools” — started singing her own rendition of “Amazing Grace.”
As she sang the ode to divine deliverance, Franklin prompted members of the congregation at the recording of the gospel album to shake their heads and raise their arms.
The R&B star took on the role of a minister of music as she rendered one gospel song after another.
“You’ve got a mighty good friend in Jesus,” she sings at one point.
“Sing, Aretha,” someone in the church seats shouts.
“Amazing Grace,” the documentary about the making of what would become the best-selling live gospel album, spends 87 minutes giving viewers a chance to see the woman known just as Aretha go back to her roots. The singer, who died at age 76 last year, was first recorded singing gospel music at her father’s church at age 14.
The title track features Franklin’s unique arrangement — almost 11 minutes long — with multiple notes attached to the words “amazing,” “grace” and other words in that time-honored hymn.
“That track was completely free in terms of meter, in terms of rhythm,” said Aaron Cohen, author of “Amazing Grace,” a 2011 book about the recording of the album. “She wasn’t being confined to a two- or three-minute pop song where she has to hit these notes to fill it out. Granted, every song she did she did her way, but more so with ‘Amazing Grace.’”
Aretha Franklin interacts with James Cleveland’s Southern California Community Choir while recording her “Amazing Grace” album at a Los Angeles Baptist church in 1972. Photo courtesy of NEON
The long-awaited documentary was delayed for almost five decades in part because of technical issues: The film and its accompanying sound were not synchronized when the recording was made. Decades later, digital technicians were able to link them, enabling the documentary directed by Oscar-winning Sydney Pollack to be released.
Now the musical mastery of Franklin’s voice is combined with a bird’s-eye view of the church setting where she recorded gospel favorites while playing a Steinway or standing at a pulpit with a large mural of the baptism of Jesus behind her.
The film captures not only the freedom with which she expresses herself musically, but the call and response between the artist and James Cleveland’s Southern California Community Choir, outfitted in bright silver vests.
“As a singer she was the star but, in that environment, she was also there to serve as well,” said Cohen, former associate editor of DownBeat magazine, who has seen the documentary six times and previously viewed raw footage.
Delores Klyvert, a fan of Franklin’s, said “Respect” is one of her favorites but she got a fuller view of the artist as a woman of faith when she stopped by a movie theater in Washington, D.C., on Good Friday.
“I knew about her father, her church, her religious background,” said Klyvert, a member of a multicultural nondenominational church in Richmond, Va. “It was just that it brought it to the forefront and let me actually connect with it a little better. I knew it but it’s nothing like actually seeing and hearing.”
Near the start of the film Cleveland introduces Franklin by saying “she can sing anything — anything.” But the focus for the two nights of recording and the two LPs of the original album was the genre of gospel.
She sings the first selection, “Wholy Holy,” a cover of a Marvin Gaye song, at the Steinway grand piano, dressed in a long white dress with sequins, eyes often closed.
The film shows a predominantly black congregation, some men dressed in plaid jackets with wide lapels and some women dancing in the aisles, seeming to respond to both the method and the message of Franklin’s music.
“It does capture that emotional immediacy that there is in this kind of church,” said Cohen, “this whole character that is a community just comes so alive in a very vivid way in the film. And it’s about sharing. It’s about sharing an experience.”
As a camera pans the congregation, viewers can spot director Pollack, Franklin’s mentor and gospel singer Clara Ward and the Rolling Stones’ Mick Jagger (who toured with gospel singer Dorothy Norwood in the same year the “Amazing Grace” album was released).
When Cleveland takes his turn at the piano to accompany Franklin, he adds more about her background.
“You know being a daughter of a Baptist minister, you had to know these hymns before you could do anything,” he said.
In the middle of the slow-moving “Precious Memories,” Franklin sings, “We ought to sing that one more time.”
Her father, the Rev. C.L. Franklin, was in the audience for the recording. In one poignant moment, he stands over his daughter seated at the piano and mops the sweat from her brow.
The Rev. C.L. Franklin wipes sweat from his daughter Aretha’s forehead during the 1972 recording of her “Amazing Grace” album in Los Angeles. Photo courtesy of NEON
At another point, her father recounts a story of his trip to the dry cleaners where the proprietor speaks of missing Aretha’s involvement in church music.
“If you want to know the truth, she hasn’t ever left the church,” he said.
More than seven months after her death, Franklin is getting renewed attention on the big screen and beyond. On April 15, she was awarded a posthumous Pulitzer Prize for “her indelible contribution to American music and culture for more than five decades.”
A week later, on Easter Sunday, BET aired the Stellar Gospel Music Awards at which singers Regina Belle, Erica Campbell and Kelly Price sang in tribute to Franklin and her family was presented with the inaugural ICON Award in her honor.
The “Amazing Grace” documentary was shown at about two dozen locations across the country on Easter Sunday, followed by a live-streamed address of the Rev. William J. Barber II, who has co-led a revival of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Poor People’s Campaign, from Barber’s North Carolina church. A representative of the film said theaters in Austin, Texas, and Brooklyn, N.Y., sold out.
“When we relaunched the Poor People’s Campaign in 2018, Aretha called me to pledge her support,” said Barber in a promotional video about the film. “You are about to hear and see the queen of a gospel tradition that was forged in the fires of America’s worst injustice. This music has sustained millions through many dangers, toils and snares. It not only kept them. It moved them, like it did Aretha, to stand for justice.”
The Supreme Court recently heard arguments in a case regarding the constitutional validity of a war memorial in Maryland in the shape of a Christian cross. The memorial is known as the Bladensburg Peace Cross and stands on government property. At issue in the case is a 40-foot cross erected as a memorial for those who died in service during World War I. The Supreme Court is expected to rule on the case later this summer.
Constitutional law scholar Garrett Eppsnotes that the result from this case “may help resolve disputes over local memorials around the country.” It might also tell us something about the approach of a new conservative Supreme Court.
While the case underscores the ongoing conflict over the place of religion in American public life, as a scholar who studies this area, I believe there is more to understand here. This is not the first such conflict. In a diverse society, these symbols can have meanings that go beyond religion.
The memorial sits on public land, at the center of a busy intersection in Prince George’s County, in Maryland.
In 1919, a local group of citizens including 10 mothers who lost their sons in World War I formed the Prince George’s County Memorial Committee. Together with the Good Roads League of Prince George’s County, they launched an effort to memorialize those who died in service during the war. In 1922, American Legion Post 3 volunteered to join the effort to build the memorial.
The memorial effort set out to dedicate the highway between Bladensburg to Annapolis as the “National Defense Highway.” It also decided that a memorial cross be included at the beginning of the highway. The intent behind the design was to invoke “patriotism and loyalty to the nation” as well as, in the words of treasurer of the Memorial Committee, to serve as a “grave stone” for her son.
Donors who supported this the initiative signed a pledge which stated,
“We, the citizens of Maryland, trusting in God, the Supreme ruler of the universe, pledge faith in our brothers who gave their all in the world war to make the world safe for democracy. Their mortal bodies have turned to dust, but their spirit lives to guide us through life in the way of godliness, justice and liberty. With our motto, ‘One God, One Country and one Flag,’ we contribute to this memorial cross commemorating the memory of those who have not died in vain.”
The memorial was dedicated on July 12, 1925. A plaque on the memorial is inscribed with the names of 49 soldiers from Prince George’s County who died in the war.
In 2014, three citizens filed a suit in the District Court of Maryland claiming that the display of a massive Christian cross on public property was a violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment of the United States Constitution.
In 2017, the case went to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit in Virginia. In a ruling, the judges said that the cross “has the primary effect of endorsing religion and excessively entangles government in religion.”
Mount Soledad Cross case
This wasn’t the first war memorial in the shape of a cross that was legally challenged. For over a quarter century, the Mount Soledad cross in La Jolla, California, was subject to litigation.
The Mount Soledad cross is a 43-foot cross which was once on publicly owned land. In 1989, a Vietnam War veteran filed suit against the city of San Diego in U.S. District Court over the presence of a religious symbol on public property. In 1991, the court ruled the cross was “unconstitutional and had to be moved off public land.”
The 1991 ruling led to a series of appeals in the federal court system that spanned decades. To end the protracted and ongoing legal drama, the Mount Soledad Memorial Association agreed to purchase the public land beneath the cross.
Upon passage by the House, Hunter stated, “Across the country and beyond our shores, America’s military and veterans are proudly represented by war memorials that also display symbols of personal faith and religion.”
Though not law, the passage of the bill by the House demonstrates the extent of the conflict around the presence of religious symbols in American war memorials.
Both people of faith and those who are non-religious can feel uncomfortable with memorial crosses. For example, Daniel Headrick, an associate pastor, lawyer and 2018 fellow of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, writes, “To reduce the cross to a symbol memorializing war sacrifice is a quintessentially American act, but such a meaning is profoundly at odds with the theological significance of the cross.”
In other words, Headrick doesn’t believe a cross can be stripped of its religious meaning.
In a religiously plural democracy, war memorials with religious symbols can have different meanings for different citizens. These different meanings can be a source of conflict. Perhaps for this reason, the 19th-century French observer of American democracy Alexis de Tocqueville warned of the political effects when religion gets “mixed up with the bitter passions of the world.”
The Bladensburg Peace Cross case like the Mount Soledad Cross and the War Memorial Protection Act are present-day reminders that there is always more than one meaning of religious symbols.