Essay: Piece of Mind in President Trump's D.C.
When friends and family heard I was off to Washington for a short weekend, they joked, "Don't get arrested." They wondered aloud how quickly I would fall in line with a protest. But the goal of this past weekend had always been to commune with a diverse and talented group of writers, to draw inspiration, to be reminded that no matter who is in the White House, artists must push the boundaries of what "peace" and "equality" and "justice" mean to our society.
So, no, I didn't protest in the traditional sense, or even in the technical sense. Yet, as I drove the nearly 500 miles from Knoxville, Tennessee, to our nation's capital, I did feel as though I was doing what President Trump would rather us not: feel safe in our own country, despite his immigration ban being lifted, despite North Korea firing a warning shot at him (not us), while President Trump dined for a third straight weekend down in Mar-a-Lago. Sometimes that is the protest, pushing aside the blind fear that President Trump has manifested and discovering what's really going on in your United States.
That isn't to make light of the grassroots, organized protests that have sprouted up across the U.S. Or the massive town hall turnouts that have contested repealing Obamacare with absolutely no alternative in the wings. Those speak volumes to our solidarity. But there are times when the soul of the individual must break loose from the monotony of this American life, to remind itself that our will is still as free as our nation. We are the dictators of this land, not the other way around.
Once I finished checking into my hotel near the National Mall, I beelined for the National Museum of the American Indian. I read what George Washington had promised, and then I was reminded of the blood that can be spilled when the white man lets his lust for wealth and power consume him. It was Friday evening, overcast and nearly freezing. I ventured out onto a quiet mall. What light lingered behind the clouds cast a wintery blue haze over the Washington Monument in the distance. I cut to the Tidal Basin and looked across the calm water at the Thomas Jefferson Memorial, a few stragglers still on the steps leading up to the rotunda. I followed the path until I reached the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial, the visage of Dr. King lit by a spotlight slicing through the dark. I was the only one there, the temperature having dropped into the 20s. In the silence, I moved from poignant quote to poignant quote, chiseled into the stone behind Dr. King.
That night I wondered if perhaps there is nothing more unpatriotic than allowing our history to remain in text books and in our faint memories of school trips, if visiting D.C. only once in our lifetimes is as much a travesty as never bothering to leave our borders, much less our own state. During my junior year of college, I lived in D.C. for four months as a journalism intern. But it wasn't until this trip, eleven years later, that I first set foot in the museum of the American Indian, or in the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
Whether or not you have the luxury of visiting the capital on a whim, as I did, we can't forget that it is our capital, and that we can visit (with reverence) whenever we damn well please. There is nothing more unpatriotic than that: forgetting that our history—from Native American to African American, from the uplifting to the incomprehensible—is open to you free of charge, nearly 365 days a year. Because, as the old adage goes, to forget our history is to possibly let the incomprehensible repeat itself.
And if you do make your way to Washington, I think you'll find that there seems to be less fear in the capital than in the very red states that have tasked President Trump with protecting us from this unknown fear. On Saturday, a cloudy but pleasant mid-50s afternoon, I meandered for half an hour on my way to the National Museum of Women in the Arts. I unexpectedly stumbled upon the Trump Hotel, which is housed in the old D.C. post office, a statue of Ben Franklin out front. Three or four security guards milled about, and there was a black gated barricade that blocked anyone from getting to the front door. People routinely stopped and snapped photos for what I imagine is the sheer novelty of a president owning a hotel less than a mile from the White House. I took one, too.
After a couple of hours in the women's museum, I strolled along a relatively desolate New York Avenue until I hit Pennsylvania Avenue. I expected to push through a crowd of on-lookers in front of the White House, but instead found a roughly ten-foot high chain-link fence around its entire perimeter, keeping tourists twenty-plus yards away from the wrought-iron black gate protecting President Trump's front lawn. I thought it would irritate me more, the convenient timing of the unknown construction, all the protesters that would surely be camped out in revolt if allowed. There was an elderly white woman sitting on a bench bundled in heavy quilts, her gray hair matted beneath a red kerchief tied under her round chin. An open umbrella rested in front of her, and it had several pieces of fabric sewn onto it, protest slogans embroidered into them.
I admired the woman for her persistence. But I'd subconciously known before even getting in my car that a man like President Trump doesn't pay much attention to the reality outside his door, so much as the perception of his sound bites, what the media and SNL make of him, how many of his Twitter followers hit the heart when he mandates his will be done, whether or not his will ever comes to fruition.
Later that same day, I visited an exhibit on the Quran at the National Museum of Asian Art. I breathed the same air as men wearing peaked turbans and women in hijabs and niqabs, women who I held the door for, women whose eyes were all I could see—no nose, no mouth, just eyes as polished as black pearls. But those eyes smiled in return. I also took several Uber rides from here to there, with Muhammad from Pakistan, and Gordon from Angola, and Bagatumur from Mongolia, and Chris from the D.C. suburbs. The president never came up, only my reason for visiting, our plans for the future, how Uber has grown in popularity to the point that every vehicle in D.C. seems to have a black "U" sign in its window.
On Sunday, I went for a jog: over the Tidal Basin to the steps of the Thomas Jefferson Memorial, and then through the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial, back around the basin to the Lincoln Memorial, along the reflecting pool, and then finally across the Washington Monument hill. The concrete was wet from a morning shower, drops oozing from the bark of tree branches, until a warm front moved in and sucked up the condensation, turning the air thick. As I paused to admire the architecture of each memorial and to soak in each inscription, I considered how our nation ultimately transcended party lines in eras of great crisis. I considered how little party lines have anything to do with the current social and political upheaval, and everything to do with a country's identity crisis. This past election wasn't won by toeing party lines, but rather by no longer toeing the lines of race and class and gender and ethnicity and religion, lines that divide and comfort us. We crossed them. The question is, Will we allow them to also conquer us?
No president, not Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton, was going to make us great again on his or her own, the same as racism and women's rights weren't going to be righted solely by who was in the White House. Certainly, there was a lesser of two evils, but to dabble in hypotheticals is no more productive than trying to convince Kellyanne Conway that she can't advertise Ivanka Trump's shoes.
I've been waiting for a sign that President Trump takes us seriously, you and me. But I haven't seen it. I'd like to believe that if I can exhaust the good in me every day, then the bad in me will be too worn out. I wonder if a president can own the bad for the benefit of the good, or if he must maintain the facade, lest his regime fall apart. As for the peace and the equality and the justice we seek, I believe we can find them, not the politicians, if we don't selfishly stop short, if we pursue peace and equality and justice until every person can fathom them, until every person understands that they lie in the beat of a heart.