Memorial Day, surrender, and “The Flag We Should Know”

Dear President Trump,

Yesterday I saw the following below-the-fold-headline in the WP: “The contested Confederate roots of Memorial Day” and although I didn’t make time to read the article then, the title lodged in my brain and wiggled loose the memory of another Confederate story of a very different sort.

That story appeared this past April in Hyperallergic (an arts newsletter) and it’s about an artist named Sonya Clark and her effort to introduce the Confederate Truce Flag to the country. She discovered the existence of the truce flag years ago during a visit to the National Museum of American History – it was in an exhibit hall a few rooms away from where the massive Star Spangled Banner was displayed. And get this, the truce flag was originally a dishtowel! It is a smallish piece of waffle weave cream colored cotton with three narrow red stripes on either end and it is edged with fringe. I think it’s pretty great that a dishtowel was pressed into service to signal the Confederates’ defeat – it conjures quite an image in my mind’s eye.

Clark is a weaver and she replicated the truce flag on a monumental scale (30’ by 15’) akin to that of the Star Spangled Banner and she made a hundred of them in the original dishtowel size that are arranged in large rectangular flag-like shape. Both are displayed on huge sloping wooden platforms and comprise the central part of her traveling show Monumental Cloth, The Flag We Should Know.

It would be shocking if you noticed her choice of article and since the odds are infinitesimally small that you did, I’ll point out that she uses the definite article “The” instead of the less specific article “A” in front of “Flag We Should Know,” signaling that this is the flag and the attendant message we should pay attention to and honor rather than the Confederate flag and its attendant message. As part of the installation, Clark uses a Confederate flag towel to clean the gallery floor and in doing so, she reveals the words of the preamble to the Declaration of Independence.

After refreshing my memory about the Monumental Cloth exhibit this morning I went ahead and read the WP piece about the contested Confederate roots of Memorial Day. Apparently lots of Southern cities and towns claim to have started the holiday, but scholars have determined that a woman named Mary Anne Williams from Columbus, GA was central to launching what we now know as Memorial Day. She lobbied for a day devoted to caring for the graves of the community’s “gallant confederate dead,” which gives me icky chills. But in an odd twist that almost makes up for the origins of Memorial Day being so tainted, she inexplicably suggested that it be on April 26, 1865, the day Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston surrendered the Army of Tennessee, a day that was surely one of the Confederacy’s darkest. The official end of the war was April 9th so it’s both odd and pathetic that this surrender was fully two weeks after the thing was done.

Whatever their logic for choosing that specific day, when I set out to read both pieces this morning I sure wasn’t expecting the surrender twist in the Memorial Day story or that it would interweave so nicely with the story of the Confederate Truce Flag.

Can you imagine what our country might be like today if the Confederate surrenders had been properly weighted and the Truce Flag was the solemnly remembered and honored emblem of the war while the other one faded from memory? No, I’m sure you can’t, and neither can I. And honestly, it’s not a terribly useful exercise since things didn’t happen that way. But going forward, my hope is that pulling these more nuanced pieces of our shared history forward will help us do the work we need to do to heal the wounds caused by racism that still plague us all and still kill many of us.

May we dare to imagine and create a country, a world where we are all safe from and with one another.
May we be willing to deeply examine our roles in the un-safety that persists.
May we understand that Black lives matter today and tomorrow, and that they mattered yesterday too.
May our culture stop waging war against brown and black people.

Tracy Simpson

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