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Wednesday, January 5, 2011
History ... Society ...

I had lived in the Washington DC metro area from 1976 thru 1978, but I left to come back to New Jersey as to go to law school (and wound up staying). One of the last things that I did before leaving in late 1978 was to visit the Lincoln Memorial. When you actually live in or around Washington, you don’t make a big effort to visit all the usual tourist attractions; you figure there is plenty of time to get to them. I would drop in on one of the Smithsonians now and then, and I recall having a nice afternoon at the National Archives. But I hardly went out of my way to see the great monuments up close. They’d be there anytime, right?

As I was getting ready to leave, I decided that I should pay a visit to Honest Abe. I picked a late-morning weekday in the fall, when there would hardly be any tourists around. I wanted to have my “moment” with Mr. Lincoln. I wanted to feel the power of his presence, to stand in awe of his great achievement in saving the nation and setting African Americans on the path to freedom, and then losing his own life to a fanatic. I figured that would take at least 20 minutes if not the better part of an hour at his Memorial down at the far end of the reflecting pool on the Mall. So I climbed the steps that day and walked past the columns, stepping into the temple chamber. I approached the super-sized “portrait in stone” of the 16th President of the United States, the awe circuits in my brain tingling and ready to go. It was about to be me and Old Abe, contemplating the ages together.

Well, not quite. Turns out that I wasn’t alone, and that my companion at the site wasn’t there for awe-struck contemplation. An elderly African-American fellow who probably worked for the Park Service was busy with a mop and some other cleaning instruments, keeping Abe’s temple tidy. It didn’t look as though he’d be finished any time soon. He gave me a quick, almost dismissive glance — as if to say “this is what it looks like, so let me get on with my job here”. I decided to leave.

Ah yes, Abraham Lincoln and the black man. It was a complex relationship back then, and it remains complicated today. I wanted to bask in the Lincolnian myth and legend, but I got a dose of daily-life reality instead. The road to wisdom takes many unanticipated twists and turns along the way, don’t it.

Perhaps that was the better experience for me as a young man. It’s not always easy to know if we are getting closer or further from wisdom. Many of us think that Old Abe as President was homing in on a great wisdom. Others, including those whom Lincoln had purportedly “freed” and their children, weren’t and still aren’t always so sure.

Lincoln certain deserves his temple; but mostly because he personifies an historical sweep, a grand phenomenon of events that involved millions of men and women. That old black guy moping the Lincoln Memorial that morning, whose great-great grandparents were no doubt a part of the momentous events of Lincoln’s time, was just as much ‘about’ that Memorial as was Abraham Lincoln.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 9:16 pm      
 
 


  1. Jim, Your description of Lincoln’s memorial as a “temple” hits the nail on the head. In some ways he certainly deserves the “temple” but in other ways, maybe not so much. In his own day, while Lincoln freed the slaves, he certainly would not accept them into the social life of the times. So, while on the one hand he did a great deal in knocking out slavery as an institution in our country and deserves credit for that, it took many years for Black people to be accepted socially–to say nothing of the fact that in some places and situations they still are not so accepted.

    And if it isn’t the African-Americans, it’s somebody else who is still the second class citizen, like Muslims nowadays or Hispanic immigrants.

    And then–on a tangent–one thinks of those young people who would return to the “old days”. of which they know nothing because they weren’t even born yet–and wonders just what they could possibly be thinking. MCS

    Comment by Mary S. — January 6, 2011 @ 7:33 am

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