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Behind the American History Curtain

Illustration By Shino Arihara

This summer, my husband and I went to Washington, D.C., for the first time. I had never approached a visit to a city with such leeriness; flying past Texas to Washington felt like sailing into the heart of darkness. My lifelong curiosity about D.C. that began with that serene post card picture of the Capitol building in childhood had evolved over the decades into a cubist mixture of ancient awe and modern disdain; by 2003, Washington conjured up plenty of feeling, but no images at all. Still, wary as I was of Washington, I wanted to get the picture. Not CNN’s piecemeal offerings of the White House lawn, but the sense of a fairly small town that held a whole fractured country inside of it and always had. As much as I held D.C. and its symbology at arm’s length, I was in there somewhere. I wanted to go looking.

I found myself instantly. The post card part of D.C. was ringed with cherry blossom trees and luxe hotels, anchored by that surreal view of the Capitol that seemed visible from nearly everywhere we walked. Drifting amid the splendor were black people, chiefly men, ranging from poor to homeless, so much apart from the sparkle and bustle they appeared to be ghosts; I knew they likely lived across the river in the Chocolate City part of D.C., the less visible but nearly as famous half, but that they so clearly had no place in the other half riled me. Urban segregation is commonplace, especially in the South, but that the capital was no exception and made no attempt to be was, in spite of everything I knew and had braced for, disappointing. I carried that disappointment around the rest of the time, like a souvenir purchase in a plastic bag that you don’t really want to schlep but you don’t want to put down and lose either.

We went to the national mall and started with the war memorials — it seemed as good a place as any. I was somewhat mollified to see that neither the Korean nor the Vietnam memorial glorified war in the name of liberation and democracy nearly as much as it simply recalled the dead (Vietnam had no glory to speak of in its day, much less any to remember now). The bronzed soldiers of the Korean War, frozen in flight across a treacherous enemy field, looked weary and uncertain, and that moved me. (I have always been moved by the less glamorous and more ambiguous aspects of militarism; when people proposed changing the national anthem after September 11 from “The Star-Spangled Banner” to “God Bless America,” I seethed. Francis Scott Key may have been writing about the glory of war, but it’s no accident that the whole account starts and ends with a question.) Walking past the engraved names of the Vietnam dead, I asked my husband, who teaches American history, where the Civil War monument was; it felt like an obvious omission. Here was a war, the war, in which over half a million people died and that made the country possible at all — was the government, in its infinite wisdom, working backward from the 20th century to the 19th? My husband laughed ruefully. “This whole city,” he said, “is a monument to the Civil War.”

 

Nothing was more satisfying or disheartening than visiting the Lincoln and Jefferson memorials. Lincoln’s legendary troubled face, his bony hands gripping the armrests of the marble chair not in power but in a kind of panic, his words about slavery endangering the soul of the republic inscribed in the walls around him — this was the mecca I had hoped for, the place I was content to see myself in. Jefferson stood erect, but expressed the same caution and seemed no less troubled. These were true temples of American idealism that were currently rife with thieves who were quartered in the White House and Capitol just down the street. Sitting in the blessed shade offered by the memorials — the weather was tolerable, but stultifyingly Southern — I felt the ghosts of both men and the reluctant acknowledgment beneath their golden words that America was fluid by nature and design, and therefore it was inevitable that it would be led at times by people who had no interest in furthering the principles they had set forth, principles that make such disinterest possible and even sanctioned by the public. Among our freedoms is the freedom to discard and reinvent whether we do that for the common good or for the individual benefit of fat-cat campaign contributors. But I left the acropolises on the hill feeling nevertheless enriched: What can’t be bought can at least be taken by whoever deems it valuable. Small as it seems today, democracy lives.

In the sea of museums dominated by the Smithsonian, including one under construction detailing the history of Native Americans, there were none dedicated to blacks (the Frederick Douglass site and the Museum of African American Culture are, predictably, across the river near Chocolate City). Blacks appeared incidentally in places like the postal museum, which mentioned about three quarters of the way through that most blacks got their first federal jobs with the post office (yes . . . and?) I expected more in the Museum of American History, a straightforward-sounding place that, though interesting, turned out to be the most glaringly subjective memorial of all. Past the grand exhibits of guns, presidents and first-lady fashions was a corner chronicling the great Negro migration from South to North. It looked and felt spare and dusty, all shacks and ploughshares, which was fitting to a point, but it dawned on me this was an acknowledgment only of poverty, and scant acknowledgment at that. The exhibit was ill-attended, and the people there breezed through and barely watched the introductory film that played in a loop. They didn’t know what to make of this particular history, which saddened and incensed me; I sat through the film with a mix of defiance and dejection, the lone member of the choir.

That experience stood in great contrast to our visit to the Holocaust Museum, which ensures that we will remember the Holocaust and its wider meaning to the same degree that the relative absence of blacks in museums ensures we will forget there was any Holocaust at all. Yet this museum, after the anger and resentment and inspiration that kept me charged and jittery for four days, was the place where I broke apart. Toward the end of the tour, among the footnotes of the exhaustively documented history, were small iron bed frames that once held mentally disabled children who were lethally injected (a fate nominally kinder than the ovens) because their faulty genes, of course, had no place in Hitler’s perfect Aryan nation. There were enlarged photos of a couple such children, naked and entirely unaware of the fate that lay just before them. The spare and simple evidence of such enormous and systematic cruelty, meted out to the most defenseless of the defenseless, staggered me, and my husband led me out of the place in tears.

Out in the burning sun I thought about how swiftly Americans accept and then normalize the monstrous things that go on now, that have gone on for hundreds of years. We are the world power that Hitler killed to be, and we assume we achieved that power far more justly and humanely. But the banality of evil threatens to undo us precisely because of our freakish, unprecedented stature as a world power. We shake off the details at our own risk, as Lincoln and Jefferson pointed out centuries ago. Remembering them as vividly as I did in Washington is about the best homeland security I could have hoped for.