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.”
HIGHER GROUND: Pilots of a Tuskegee Airmen unit, circa May 1943, likely in Southern Italy or North Africa. The Airmen were the first African American military aviators in the United States armed forces. (Photo: Wikipedia)
This week’s observance of Memorial Day, along with the recent release of the film Red Tails (now available on DVD and Blu-ray), brought back memories of a highlight from my life and career. Two years ago, I had the honor of interviewing four extraordinary men for a local paper in San Antonio: Buck Sergeant Warren H. Eusan, Mr. John “Mule” Miles, Lt. Colonel Gene Derricotte, and Lt. Colonel Granville Coggs. I was noticeably nervous going in, knowing that I’d be interviewing a part of history — a remnant of the illustrious Tuskegee Airmen.
The men, all well into their eighth decade, looked distinguished and refined. I was captivated by their profound stories. With every question I asked, the reality of just how special they were began to unfold. As the first African American aviators in the U.S. armed forces, their courage and success during World War II helped open doors to military service that were once off limits to certain minority groups. Their experiences spoke of a confidence born of great achievement against enormous odds. Indeed, after they took flight, the whole world watched, with everyone, for the most part, believing they would fail.
Although at times life as an airman seemed insurmountably difficult, 90-year-old Eusan, who later became a public school teacher, recalled: “It made us stick together, and there was a pride in all of us that said we had to make it.”
LIVING LEGENDS: Surviving Tuskegee Airmen (from left) Warren Eusan, Gene Derricotte, Granville Coggs and John Miles continue to meet as the San Antonio, Texas, chapter of Tuskegee Airmen Inc. (Photo: Wanda Thomas Littles)
I was transported by their remembrances to the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol in 2007, when they and more than 300 other Tuskegee Airmen or their surviving family members stood to witness the ultimate words that they had longed to hear — their names called as collective recipients of the Congressional Gold Medal of Honor some 65 years after all the victory celebrations, parades, and ticker tape joyfully lavished on other soldiers had faded away. It was an honor way overdue.
Lt. Colonel Coggs, now retired from the army said, “The honor and recognition we are now receiving is unimaginable … I just wish that those who died without seeing it could be here.”
As we moved on, my questions to them referenced the unabashed racism they faced as young airmen near Tuskegee, Alabama, and I could sense an agreement in spirit that said they had survived and had overcome the harsh reality of an America that was unwilling to regard them as intelligent and capable human beings.
However, these men didn’t allow the mistreatment and disrespect to outweigh the greater mission, for which the fate of the whole of Black America hinged. Although all of them at times thought about it, and probably came close to laying out more than a few white antagonists who taunted them with racist epithets, they did not.
FLY BALL: John 'Mule' Miles played baseball in the Negro League following WW2.
Eighty-eight year old Miles said, “The key to not retaliating was my faith in God; because if it had not been for the Lord on my side, where would I be?” Miles would go on to play ball for The American Negro Baseball League in Chicago after the war.
The Tuskegee Airmen fine-tuned the art of restraint through another type of courage called self-control. And through this restraint, through remaining strong under unthinkable pressure, they proved the whole world wrong about their capabilities.
The most outstanding part of being a Tuskegee Airman was the position they took that said, “No matter how hard they make it, we can take it. There is no room for failure. We must succeed.”
And succeed they did.
Being totally on one accord at every level, from ground to air, this unity of purpose was truly their greatest contribution in destroying the myth that African American men did not have what it took to hold positions of responsibility.
The Tuskegee Airmen, who actually saw battle as fighter pilots, flew 15,553 combat sorties and completed 1,578 missions, providing fighter escorts to strategic targets in Europe. These were men who served with distinction over North Africa, Italy, and Germany. White bomber crews ultimately called them “Red Tailed Angels” because of the red paint on their tail assemblies; but most importantly because they protected the white pilots on their missions. Under the leadership of then-Colonel Benjamin O. Davis, who trained the first black pilots at Tuskegee Institute in a unit called the 99th Squadron, the Tuskegee Airmen showed the world what a people who had been written off as intellectually and mentally deficient were capable of.
After nearly 30 years in the shadow of obscurity and lies, the truth was finally told. With the founding of Tuskegee Airmen Inc. in 1972 in Detroit, Michigan, 50 chapters sprung up all over the U.S. and the record was set straight. Now the organization’s collective aim is to help further the education of young men and women of all races in math, science, and aviation through scholarships and a variety of programs to honor of the Tuskegee Airmen.
OFFICER & GENTLEMAN: Lt. Colonel Gene Derricotte.
Lt. Colonel Derricotte, the youngest of the group at age 84, who served in both the Army and Air Force before becoming a dentist, explained, “Essentially no one knew there was such a thing as the Tuskegee Airmen. Now when I speak at schools, and in the community, people tell me how sorry they are for the way we were treated and tell me how proud they are of me — of us.”
The Tuskegee project, according to the men, began when a law passed by Congress allowing African Americans to train in civilian life as pilots was passed. After this bill took effect, an experimental Negro branch of pilots in the Army Air Corps was formed. To date there are roughly 278 Tuskegee Airmen living, with about 90 having been pilots; however, no one knows for certain how many of the estimated 19,000 “Tuskegee Experience” participants are still alive today. What we do know is that they all played an important role in the war. While men like Lee Archer, one of just three Tuskegee pilots with four “kills,” and Roscoe C. Brown, who flew over 79 missions in his career, were making remarkable history in the thick of battle, the men and women back home were building a legacy by following the precedent established to maintain superior support of the men abroad, outstanding deportment, and high achievements in flight should they have to deploy.
PROUD SOLDIER: Buck Sergeant Warren H. Eusan.
The NAACP, the black press, and even then-First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, who flew with a black pilot at Tuskegee, worked hard to get the Tuskegee project off the ground and to support its development. These men and women were the cream of the crop from black colleges and universities across the land. They were men and women who’d studied to be doctors, lawyers, educators, even aviators, who jumped at the opportunity to serve our nation. They were salutatorians, valedictorians, and men and women who were in the upper tenth of their class. They were men and women who were simply the best.
Miles said, “We worked hard all day and went to school at night.”
Even now, the bond forged between them is strong. The men joked, bantered, and reflected on their past lives and Buck Sergeant Eusan asked, “Did you know Derricotte was a student of mine that I trained to master the instrumentation on our planes?” When asked by Derricotte what kind of grade he got, Eusan said, “You’re here right now, aren’t you? You must have gotten an A.”
SKY'S THE LIMIT: Lt. Colonel Granville Coggs.
They laughed — a beautiful thing to hear, which speaks of the resilience of men who turned disrespect, bigotry, and injustice into an occasion for something positive.
Lt. Colonel Coggs reflected, “The only way you could describe the Tuskegee Airmen is that we were a cut above.” And they were, because President Harry S. Truman signed an executive order ending segregation in the military after seeing just how far above the racist labels and stereotypes they were.
It’s interesting to note that all but two of the San Antonio chapter members thought that George Lucas’s Red Tails was the best, most accurate film to date on the Tuskegee Airmen; and they’ve seen them all. The two dissenting Airmen felt the film underplayed the intense racial struggles that they faced in favor of a more glamorized “Hollywood” tale. Nonetheless, earlier this year the seven San Antonio Airmen celebrated the film made in their honor by signing autographs and sharing memories with the local press at San Antonio’s Rialto Theater. Inside the theater, after being introduced as members of the famed Tuskegee Airmen, they received a standing ovation from moviegoers and staff.
Vintage photos courtesy of the San Antonio Chapter of Tuskegee Airmen, Inc.