When I was a boy, my parents would take me and my brother to Washington, D.C. to visit our grandmother on our summer break. It was always an exciting trip because the nation’s capitol was full of new sites to see and interesting people to interact with. My father was a history teacher and for him, visiting D.C. was equally fulfilling. Together as a family, we would all go to the Smithsonian museums and enjoy everything from dinosaur to space exhibits. Next we would venture out onto the National Mall and view the Washington Monument, the Lincoln Memorial, The United States Capitol building and other attractions.
I remember what a great impression those structures made upon me back then; the awesome height of the Washington Monument obelisk stretching upward into the heavens, the gigantic statue of President Abraham Lincoln looking downward on swarms of tourists, the magnetic glow of the Capitol building in the quiet of the night. We even took a boat ride across the Potomac River to Mount Vernon to visit the home where President George Washington lived. I remember feeling an eerie, cold shutter when the tour guide explained how President George Washington was a slave owner; knowing that I was stepping on the same ground that slaves once walked, lived, toiled from sun up to sun down, and died on.
When I became a teenager, the family trips to D.C. became bitter-sweet. I still enjoyed visiting my grandma and feeling the rush of adrenaline that came with being in a city with so much historical tradition. Yet gone were the over optimistic days of my colorblind youth; days when I truly believed that I could be anything I wanted to be, including President of the United States, if only I worked hard and applied myself. The truth, as it seemed to me at the time of my adolescence, was that the White House belonged to a fraternity of White men, reflected by all the monuments and memorials along the National Mall. There were no statues dedicated to African-Americans on the National Mall, and the thought of an African-American becoming President of the United States at that time was preposterous. My heroes at 15 years old were Malcolm X (El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz), Dr. Huey P. Newton and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. If this was truly a land where we believed that all men were created equal, where were the monuments dedicated to those men who died for the very equality they were supposedly granted in the Declaration of Independence?
So when I returned to Washington D.C. last week, this time as a 34 year old man, I regained some of the fondness I once held for the majesty that our nation’s capitol projects. Chiefly, this is true because in addition to revisiting the Lincoln Memorial, the Washington Monument, the Capitol building, and the Smithsonian art museums, I was also able to visit the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial. Besides its obvious artistic appeal, I found the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial to be overwhelmingly a powerful statement professing; Yes, we as African-Americans, sons and daughters of slaves, sons and daughters of great African civilizations before slavery, belong. We have contributed to the success of this great nation and we continue to add value beyond measure to the further development of this country. Knowing that I was looking at this awe-inspiring sculpture at a time when President Barack Obama, the nation’s first African-American President, was serving in his first term in the White House, made the experience even more significant. I also left with renewed hope, that one day the National Mall will be even more reflective and inclusive of the diversity which has distinguished us from other countries in the world; perhaps with memorials for Native-Americans, Latino-Americans and other groups who have made lasting contributions to the United States of America.