Recently, my son has been obsessed with the presidents, and he has wanted to visit Washington D.C. to see the portraits, memorials, and much more. As a result of his interest, we took a trip to Washington D.C. to visit the memorials and see the sites. Walking through D.C., I started thinking, again, about the ways we construct and interact with history. Specifically, I thought about the role that history plays in our construction of the future and the ways that the critical examination of history works to lead us to a better future while the mythologization of a non-existent past leads to oppression and repression. From our first day as we visited the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and the National Museum of African American History and Culture to our final stop at Arlington National Cemetery, I constantly thought about the ways we approach history and the importance of accurately knowing the past and critiquing it. I constantly thought about Frederick Douglass who wrote, “We have to do with the past only as we can make it useful to the present and to the future.”
On our first day, we visited the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, and we were surrounded by countless other visitors. Working our way through the opening section, which detailed the Nazi’s rise to power and initial actions following January 1933, I came across the panel on books burnings, where in the spring of 1933, students and officials in the party removed books from libraries and bookstores, burring them. On may 10, 1933, they burned more that 25,000 books in a bonfire in Berlin. “The book burnings,” as the museum states, “were not spontaneous: they were a calculated, coordinated effort to ‘purify’ German culture. The students worked from prepared blacklists of books deemed ‘un-German.’ Some of these books were by Jewish authors; most were not.”
None of this was new to me, but as I read the text and looked at the images, I thought about the mass of people looking at the same words. I wondered if they thought about all of the “divisive concepts” bills targeting educators across the nation and the ways that these bills serve to condemn books and materials that they see as “un-American.” I wondered if they thought about politicians such as Glenn Youngkin in Virginia who ran, and won partly, by saying he’d ban Toni Morrison’s Beloved. I wondered if they thought about the school board in Tennessee removing Art Spiegelman’s Maus from the classroom. I wondered if they thought about school districts in Texas, notably South Lake, that has been banning books. I wondered if they thought about the fact that the majority of these bans and attempted bans are targeted towards authors of color.
I kept wondering these things as I made my through the rest of the museum. I wondered how many visitors even thought about the connections between Jim Crow and the Holocaust. Did they know about the Nazi’s use of United States immigration law and unwritten “rules” on race in their construction of the Nuremburg Laws? How many went to the bottom level and saw information about the German American Bund? How many people saw the display about the Congregational Church in Southbury standing up to the German American Bund and thought, “When will my church stand up to fascism?” How many saw the “Jap hunting license” and pins given out by sportsmen’s clubs and thought about our immigration policies? How many looked at the March 1942 opinion poll where 93% of respondents thought “moving Japanese aliens (those who are not citizens) away from the Pacific Coast” was good? How many saw this poll result, and the results of other polls, and thought, “This sounds like today?”
These thoughts continued as we went to the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) and saw this quote from James Baldwin on the wall: “The great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do.” History walks alongside us as we traverse this world. Whether we consciously recognize it or not, it is there, lingering not behind us but beside us, travelling with us into the future, impacting the future we create. We cannot escape history, and we must confront history, in its multiple layers, in order to create a better world for all. The NMAAHC highlights how history resides within us, impacting our actions. It shows us the continued impact of enslavement, stereotypes, Jim Crow, and more.
Every space in Washington D.C. reminds you of the importance of history in informing our present and our future. This is especially true at the National Archives, the site of the Deceleration of Independence, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and other important documents from our nation’s history. Four statues rest outside of the National Archives, two on the north entrance and two on the south. Each of these statues comment on the importance of remembering the past and making it, as Douglass put said, “useful to the present and to the future.”
The first statue on the north side depicts a contemplative woman with books on her lap. On her left side, she has one of the books open, as if in the process of reading it. She gazes forward, at the viewer, and on the base it reads, “What is past in prologue,” a line from William Shakespeare’s The Tempest. This line, positioned outside the site that houses the archives of the United States, tells us the past is but a beginning to the present and the future. It all works together, forming a continual line that leads us forward. What we do with that prologue, though, is up to us. Do we learn from its failures? Or, do we mythologize it?
The statue opposite the woman on the north side depicts a stoic man seated with a rolled up scroll in his right hand a closed book on his lap. The inscription reads, “Study the past,” which is a paraphrase of Confucius’ saying, “Study the past if you would divine the future.” Again, we are asked to look backwards in order to look forward, as the man does from his chair, into the future. We don’t close history and leave it. We use it, as the woman does in the first statue. We have it there, as the man does, as a guide as we pave our own paths forward.
The first statue on the south entrance to the National Archives depicts a woman holding a baby in her right arm and cradling the top of a vase with her left. A snake-bordered robe is over her left arm. The inscription reads, “The heritage of the past is the seed that brings forth the harvest of the future.” Again, the past serves as a space to envision the future. We see this symbolized in the newborn baby that the woman holds and in the images around the base, including books, a plow, cornucopia, and a lamp. History helps us to work towards securing the rights and liberties inscribed in the founding documents for all. This piece, along with its companion, serve to help us think about the importance of history in the continued formation of the nation.
The final statue depicts a man seated with a plumed helmet in his right arm and fasces in his left. The quotation reads, “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.” This statue does not look to the past, but it looks to the present and to the future. The man is resting, but he is ready to protect liberty at all costs, as symbolized by the helmet and the fasces. When looking at this statue we must ask ourselves, “Who do we need to be vigilant against to protect liberty?” Timothy Snyder and Nora Krug answer this question in On Tyranny. They point out that we usually think about this saying as referring to outside influences; however, they argues that the saying calls upon us to recognize “that American democracy must be defended from Americans who would exploit its freedoms to bring about its end.” To highlight this, Krug draws a man looking in the mirror, confronting himself, something that history helps us to do everyday.
Snyder and Krug continue by having a full page image of two enslaved individuals with the phrase, as uttered by the abolitionist Wendel Phillips. wrapping around them. This framing points to the fact that we must be ever vigilante about those who wish to deny the “pursuit of life, liberty and happiness” for all. Enslavers and those who supported enslavement did this during slavery. We see similar things today with anti-abortion laws and rhetoric where the “liberty” of a certain group trumps the liberties of others. We see it with Christian fascism and its desire to impose a theocracy, thus denying the rights of individuals who disagree. These threats are not external. They are internal, and they seek to, under the guise of democracy, limit the rights of individuals.
On the Fourth of July, I walked with my son around the Tidal Basin and snapped the picture at the top of this post. I call this image Sun Setting On . . ., and I’ve been thinking about it a lot these past few days. In the picture, you can see the Jefferson Memorial on the left. To the left of the setting sun, you can see the mountain of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial, and to the right you can see the Washington Monument. This image encompasses a lot, and it shows the continual movement of history. The placement of the King Memorial, in relation to Jefferson and Washington is important too. He faces the Jefferson Memorial, and you can see the Washington Monument from the King Memorial. King’s monument engages with the enslavers and Founding Fathers Jefferson and Washington. His monument exists within this space, within this history, as a call to our need to remember and confront our pasts.
I think about King’s words in his posthumous essay “A Testament of Hope.” He tells his audience, “Many whites hasten to congratulate themselves on what little progress we Negroes have made. I’m sure that most whites felt with the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, all race problems were automatically solved. Because most white people are so far removed from the life of the average Negro, there has been little to challenge this assumption. Yet Negroes continue to live with racism every day.” King knew that in order to progress we need to readdress our past, not just wipe our hands and pat ourselves on the back when “little progress” gets made because just because legislation gets passed it doesn’t mean that hate, racism, white supremacy, go away. They remain.
At the conclusion of the essay, King writes, “America has not yet changed because so many think it need not change, but this is the illusion of the damned.” I think about this line as I reflect back on my trip to the nation’s capital and the throngs of people visiting the same sites I visited. I think about these words and wonder what those around me thought as they looked on at exhibits and items on the Holocaust, enslavement, Jim Crow, colonization, imperialism, and more at the museums and memorials in Washington D.C.