Monday, April 12, 2010

Notes from the District: #1

I've been in Washington, D.C. the past few days for the annual meeting of the Organization of American Historians. I had the opportunity to explore Washington and take photographs between and after sessions. Now I'm back in the Far West, with access to my computer.

Given the nature of the conference and my own concentration upon twentieth century political history and conservatism, Virginia's "Confederate History Month" and the Commonwealth governor's historically (and, one can only hope, politically) inept comments on the subject were much-discussed topics. I've already shared my views on "months" in general, although I do respect the need to bring sidelined topics and histories to special view in a world that does not always acknowledge them as it should. (I'm not convinced Confederate history is one of these sidelined topics, given Americans' continuing fascination with all things Civil War and our persistently romantic caricature of the "Lost Cause.")

Sure, many factors contributed to the Civil War -- but traced to their roots, most of them came back to the persistent question of slavery. And yes, Abraham Lincoln was not a saint. His racial views, while advanced beyond many of his time, were not nearly as enlightened as I would prefer. That does not erase the magnitude of the process he put into action.

Last Thursday afternoon I stood in the Lincoln Memorial, marveling once again at the power imparted by the president's seated figure and the strength of his hands resting on the arms of his chair. There is a coiled tension in the sculpture that could not be replicated by a standing profile. Amidst of the bustle of Cherry Blossom Festival traffic, two of the cutest little boys I have ever seen, neatly dressed in coordinating plaid shirts, posed at the base of the statue for a photograph. They happened to be African American.

I have no idea of their heritage. They could be descended from free blacks living in the North for centuries. Their grandparents might have migrated to the United States from a Caribbean nation in the past few decades. Or, of course, they could be the descendants of slaves. Whatever their story, these beautiful children are living in a world of possibilities created by people like the man profiled in that immense marble statue. We do not yet live in a world of justice -- but how far we have come, building upon the decisions and actions of imperfect people, working in imperfect circumstances, using imperfect ideas.

Abraham Lincoln grappled with the problems of his time and took actions that led to change. Perhaps it would have been impossible by 1860 to continue to paper over the differences that divided North and South, ignoring reality the way Virginia's governor attempted to do just last week. Regardless, Lincoln chose not to attempt such an action. He faced the looming crisis, and out of turmoil, bloodshed, and 150 years of struggle have come two little boys with radiant smiles and opportunities that extend to the presidency.

For that, Abe, I salute you.

No comments: