27 Oct An Invented andContested Place
The paradox that is our nation’s capital struck me as from a blow on January 20, 2009. That day nearly two million people gathered to witness Senator Barack Obama become the forty-fourth president of the United States, the first African American in this office. My friend Kris and I were among them.
Millions more who watched the events on television witnessed tradition and pageant: the oath of office taken on the Capitol steps, the new president’s inaugural address, then the parade along Pennsylvania Avenue to the White House. Glimpses of monuments and memorials in downtown Washington may have been, for many, familiar reminders of national promise.
“Remember this day and be proud of who you are.”
We’d taken an early 32 Metrobus to Foggy Bottom that bright morning, wind chill in the teens, to walk with an expectant crowd to the National Mall. But this crowd differed in character and tone from all I’d known. Young parents carried toddlers in backpacks. Elderly walked with youth. Well-dressed affluence shared sidewalks with many more of poorer means. Strangers nodded and spoke to each other with kindness. I overheard a young woman lean down to tell the child whose hand she held, “Remember this day and be proud of who you are.” Children of nearly every continent stood together.
It was then that I saw with a new clarity how Washington, D.C., is an invented place. For unlike capitals of most other nations, the District began far from the country’s economic, intellectual, or cultural centers. Its origins arose instead from a political deal.
The District also harbored from its earliest days a “secret city” of free and enslaved African Americans who helped build the nation’s capital. My father’s people might have been among them.