When I woke up this morning and decided to take a jog around the National Mall, I didn’t expect to spend much time reflecting on the nature of America or my American identity. Maybe it’s a credit to the design of the Mall, or the fact that I had spent the previous night watching fireworks from a rooftop to shouts of ‘U.S.A.’ Maybe it was the impending U.S. v. Japan World Cup finals, or just the fact that traveling the world to get a better idea of what it means to be an American is one of the themes of this blog. But a few miles in, I had trouble thinking about anything else.
The reflections started with a sense of frustration. I began my loop near the Capitol building. The Capitol looms above the Mall and the dome is covered in scaffolding. ‘A nation under construction,’ I thought. As I rounded the water in front of it, already a bit out of breath, I felt a lukewarm disappointment seep into my thoughts. The actions of those inside seemed pale and weak compared to the dignity of their surroundings. I thought about how the idea of self-sacrifice for the greater good was such an obvious concept when I was younger. I felt a worn out anger at the role of self-interest in the building disappearing behind me.
It had been too long since I ran regularly and I didn’t stretch as much as I should have. My hamstrings were feeling tight. The Washington Monument grew larger as I approached. ‘An obelisk,’ I thought. ‘Just like the ancient Egyptians.’ I was amused by this continuity, across millennia, between the two civilizations.
At the Vietnam Memorial, I slowed to a walk out of respect. Families beside me looked for specific names. So many names… As more people stopped, I was struck by how the sacrifices from this too complicated war still ripple in our Nation’s families.
By the time I reached the Lincoln Memorial, it was nine in the morning and small crowds had begun to form. Members of a Chinese tour group looked on with faces of respect, curiosity, and maybe boredom. I considered the crowds, wondered if I might have a slight odor at this point in my run, and decided to hike up the steps anyway. The steps are steep and add to the overall majesty of the memorial. Lincoln’s second inaugural address is chiseled into the wall on the right side. It starts by saying that there’s not much to say, so I figured I could read it through. I stood looking up, my eyes straining without my glasses, while the crowds focused on the statue behind me. The country is in the midst of a war that nobody wanted and he offers no predictions of how it will end. Throughout the speech there is a focus on what both sides have in common. Lincoln acknowledges the absurdity of both sides praying to the same God to ask that He cause other men to suffer. We must stand together as one nation no matter the cost. ‘With malice toward none. With charity for all.’ We must bind the nation’s wounds. When people say our politics today are the most divided they’ve ever been, I want to grab them and shake them, ‘Don’t you know we fought a Civil War?!?!?’
Around this point I realized that my morning jog was proving more interesting than I expected. I started to think it might make a decent blog post. I decided to start taking pictures.
My extended stay with brother Abe left me physically rested, and I picked up my pace as I jogged away. I began to cycle through the impressions that had been made on me during the run. I thought of the engraving at the WWII memorial saying that America came to liberate and not to conquer and how unusual that was in the history of the world. The WWI memorial is embarrassingly boring and no one was there. Good architecture goes a long way.
World War II Memorial
World War I Memorial
During my two years teaching U.S. history, I discovered that Martin Luther King and FDR are my favorite historical figures, so I felt a swell of excited anticipation as I crossed the road toward their memorials. The Marin Luther King memorial is beautiful and the quotes on either side are well chosen. Dr. King has become so identified with the black community in the United States, and with the struggle in the south in particular, that it can be easy to forget how global his perspective on peace and justice truly was. All people are connected. When we fight for the good of others we become greater ourselves. Love will triumph over hate. These would be powerful sentiments from a man of thought, but they echo more deeply coming from a man defined by his actions.
The FDR memorial is more of an experience than the others. Successive courtyards pay tribute to the different terms of his presidency. Large granite blocks cut off the outside world. The sound of falling water murmurs above the silence. ‘All we have to fear is fear itself.’ I didn’t understand what that meant the first hundred times I heard it. But now I’ve seen how fear can paralyze, how it brings out the worst parts of ourselves. It is better to lean forward and act. To create what hasn’t existed before. ‘Happiness lies in the joy of achievement and the thrill of creative effort.’
I ran along the edge of the lake to return to the main stretch of the Mall. The Jefferson monument reflected in the water to my right. I noticed that the frustration that marked the first part of my run had turned to something else. I understand that monuments and memorials don’t make policy, but they do tell us something about what we want our country to be, what we choose to remember. I began to feel a sense of pride in the people and ideas we have chosen to memorialize. The ideas engraved at the Mall are ones of sacrifice and brotherhood. We are greatest during the most difficult times because that is when we come together. We believe in the dignity of our fellow man. America is, and always has been, far from perfect. Our history is defined by the struggles of people fighting for rights they should never have had to fight for. But the idea that anyone born anywhere should have the same shot at opportunity as anyone else, is pretty new in the history of the world, and we have those ideas, more than other countries, intricately woven with the type of nation we want to be. America is a promise projected into the future. A commitment to work for a more perfect Union.
I understand that this kind of personal pride in America comes easier to me as a white male than others. I often think of one of my favorite team building activities to do with young teachers. I ask them to come up with the three identities that are most important to who they are and then share out why they chose those identities. Every time a few people say ‘American,’ and every time those people are also white males. But I do think we’ve come a long way since Frederick Douglass gave his remarks on how limited the independence gained on July 4th really was, and I think, as a country, we’re starting to acknowledge just how far from perfect our Union currently is. But even given all of that, people from all over the world still aspire to come to cross our borders and sail to our shores and that’s a good thing, Mr. Trump. That’s how we’ve become who we are.
As I passed the Washington monument, I looked back and remembered that a guide in Egypt once told me that obelisks were designed to draw a person’s eye toward the sky. To create a sense of awe in something greater than ourselves.
I returned to the place where I began, slowed my pace to a walk and checked the time. It had taken me over two hours to run about five miles, but I was still winded, and I struggled to catch up to my thoughts.
Thanks for helping me to find a way to give them order,
(And just in case there are any doubts about the fact I was running throughout this. Here’s my sweaty-faced selfie with FDR):