Washington: In the Footsteps of History

As the Obamas walked up the steps of the Capitol Building, I promised to do the same one day. To me, their inauguration was ‘the dream and the hope of the slave.’ In the last month, of their last year, as President and First Lady of the USA, I finally made it to Washington.

Stepping out of the train station, the white dome of the Capitol Building glittered in the weak winter sunshine. The beacon was our landmark. As long as we could find it, we would never get lost in the compact city.

We scampered up the steps of the Capitol, then along the surrounding wide avenues and parks. I was trying to find the spot of a shot from Twelve Years a Slave. The Capitol’s dome glittered there too, in the background, as the slaves were stripped, whipped and shackled in a slave pen.

A cool wind played with my dreadlocks as we ambled along the Potomac River. Ignoring the map, we figured it was more fun just to drift and see where the water took us. The river was wide, and too deep to swim across. As it was winter, no tour boats bobbed in the water.

Across the bank, we spotted the Jefferson Memorial. The Greek-style temple was serene, it’s dome round and perky like a full breast. The lone figure of the man peeked through the columns. Perhaps he was missing Sally Hemmings. Would she have wanted to join him, I wondered? He was her lover, her owner, and the father of their enslaved children.

Did Jefferson think of his children as he wrote the Declaration of Independence – “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…”? I think he did – but only of his White ones. His Black children were mere property, their names neatly recorded in his ledgers, along with his other 600 or so slaves, the cattle and the bushels of tobacco.

Groves of cherry trees lingered over the banks of the Potomac River. We strolled along, dodging a few runners and cyclists sharing the river-walk path. Pocahontas lived along this same shore. She sailed from here to visit the queen and king of England in 1615. Her gift of tobacco was sweet to them, and in the end, the herb was bitter for Native and African Americans.

“Out of the mountain of despair, a stone of hope.” This was carved into the Martin Luther King Memorial. We stumbled across it, on the right bank of the river. King stands tall, as he emerges from a mountain of solid rock. Arms folded, he gazes across the water. Perhaps he was having a long chat with Jefferson. Separated by two centuries of history, the two men were still talking about race.

President Obama came to the same spot on the river once – to pay his respects to King. People milled around the memorial, waiting for their turn, to stand at King’s feet and pose for the classic photograph. We did the same. At King’s feet was a single red rose.

The Potomac was the River Jordan for slaves. On its south side were the slave states. Cross the river, and you were almost free. Black fishermen and clam diggers worked the river, fishing for news and food. At night their catch included fleeing slaves, gently shown the way north, and another stop on the Underground Railroad.

Twilight was near as turned away from the river, and followed the signs to the Lincoln Memorial. The temple was magnificent. I looked about the vast hall, above and around the statue and these words caught my eye, carved into the wall. “These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was somehow the cause of the war.” Lincoln said this speech in 1865, at the end of the civil war.

We ambled down the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, standing on the exact spot, where a century later Martin Luther King delivered his I Have a Dream speech. A quarter of a million people stood before the Civil Rights king, as he once again pleaded for justice.

In the distance, the Egyptian-inspired Washington Monument pricked the sky. Capitol Hill seemed to quiver in the fading light. The National Museum of African American History and Culture appeared like the upper decks of a ship, its sails aloft in a full breeze. We sauntered towards it, the image of a slave ship drifting in my head. The museum, Black Lives Matter, and the Obamas, are the after-life of slavery.

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