Micki McElya, associate professor of history at the University of Connecticut spoke at the UConn Bookstore in Storrs Center Wednesday evening to promote her new book, “The Politics of Mourning: Death and Honor in Arlington National Cemetery.”
McElya lectured about the establishment of Arlington National Cemetery, highlighting its significance in American iconography as well as pivotal moments in America’s history whereupon Arlington was central in conveying the state of American politics and culture.
When one thinks about Arlington, they may not understand its eternal significance as the highest representations of honor, the undying homage to our servicemen who have died at home and abroad throughout the fabric of American history.
What one may not think about is how much Arlington has changed since its founding in 1864. What may be even more surprising is where it was built: on the estate of Robert E. Lee built by slaves who served the Lee family. With this knowledge, one may now begin to see Arlington’s place in today’s contemporary discussion on racism in America and our constant battle of reconciling with our bloody history.
“The thing that sticks out to me was realizing this was where Robert E. Lee lived and kind of made his fortune. To me it’s interesting to make those connections between how Arlington has this past that is integrated with slavery and how we have made it a place that memorializes our war dead,” Amy Sopcak-Joseph, a first semester graduate student of history, said.
Even outside of today’s social and political issues, Arlington remains a memorial. But it becomes something more when digging into how it came to be. With that our understanding of Arlington deepens and it becomes an even broader reflection on our society. When we think about who is buried there and why, we might overlook certain details without an intimate knowledge of the history as written in McElya’s book.
“The longevity of the entire project. Looking at it from the establishment after at the end of the Civil War, literally on Robert E. Lee’s old home and then stretching to the present where she’s [McElya] dealing with what just happened at the Democratic National Convention becoming a major moment in the discussion of islamaphobia, Trump, etc. and using those things as weapons in this notion of nationality and what the space [Arlington] really means,” Graham Stinod, an archivist at the Dodd center archives and special collections, said.
Stinod’s reference is to Khizr Khan, the father of Humayun Khan, an army captain who was awarded the Bronze Star and Purple Heart after dying in Iraq in 2004. Khan spoke out against Donald Trump at the DNC after Trump put himself on record saying that he would temporarily ban Muslims from immigrating to the United States.
Arlington’s history is rich with honor and controversy. To a certain extent, McElya spoke at length about key moments in Arlington and brought into the discussion the contemporary social issues we face by shedding light on moments in history; from the first women to take guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier (Sergeant Heather Lynn Johnsen in 1996), to the sexual orientation of the dead, reflecting the notion that one’s sexual orientation does not make you any more or any less reverent and belonging in a place where America’s fallen heroes now rest.