On April 16, I stand corralled into a velvet rope pen with other sunburned tourists, a class of middle school students all wearing orange shirts, and my two friends. In the rotunda of the National Archives Building, the light is dim. Best to see through the thick glass at the Charters of Freedom: The Declaration of Independence, the Constitution of the United States, the Bill of Rights.
I try my patience and wade among the crowd. The elegant script of our nation’s first important documents looks more like scribbling to my twenty-first-century eye, and the sheets of parchment on which the script is written are ostentatiously enormous. Four times the size that I had imagined.
For some unsettling reason, I think that if the Constitution were smaller, it’d seem more genuine.
My friends and I stick around as three more velvet-rope-corralled groups wade in and out. The crowd thickens and thins like a rip tide. The pattern does not change, and I wonder if the security personnel ever get tired of it.
Step back, please.
I’m serious. Don’t touch the glass.
Put your phone away.
Doesn’t our nation’s history operate the same way? Don’t we follow the same, tired patterns? Don’t we make the same mistakes? Don’t we demand and declare freedom over and over again? Don’t we fight the ignorance? The injustices that have somehow become the norms and staus quos of our society? Don’t we constantly tell each other what is right? What is wrong? And is it ever enough?
Not far from the documents declaring and protecting freedom, there’s another room recognizing the struggles of the Civil Rights Movement fifty years ago. A television plays an interview with Martin Luther King Jr. on repeat. Glass cases house letters written to state representatives, to friends, to family. I look at the dates, and I realize that the number fifty seems much farther away than 1964 actually is.
And I wonder if that exhibit is there as a tribute.
Or a warning that we have a long way to go.
I wonder if the Civil Rights exhibit is meant to remember Selma and the Birmingham Church and Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. and all the lives given and lost with only a few lines in an obituary and a quiet funeral.
Or if it’s there to inspire in our minds thoughts of Freddie Gray and Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin and all the names that will never find a prominent spot in the headlines.
Twelve years of public school history class behind me, and I never quite understood why my teachers made us bring in newspaper clippings each week. Now, newspaper clippings are more often screenshots or articles printed alongside advertisements on sheets of paper, eight by eleven inches. Sheets of paper that are every bit a part of history as parchment from the eighteenth century.
We study history, my teachers always told me, so we don’t make the same mistakes.
But years and years go by, and the stories from history seem recycled: different characters, sometimes different conflicts, but always the same plot.
And I know that writing these words doesn’t go far enough. That at the end of each sentence is just that: an end. Sometimes words are just words. But sometimes bells keep sounding long after the last stroke, so I leave you with words much more powerful than my own:
not an elegy for Mike Brown
I am sick of writing this poem
but bring the boy. his new name
his same old body. ordinary, black
dead thing. bring him & we will mourn
until we forget what we are mourning
& isn’t that what being black is about?
not the joy of it, but the feeling
you get when you are looking
at your child, turn your head,
then, poof, no more child.
that feeling. that’s black.
think: once, a white girl
was kidnapped & that’s the Trojan war.
later, up the block, Troy got shot
& that was Tuesday. are we not worthy
of a city of ash? of 1000 ships
launched because we are missed?
always, something deserves to be burned.
it’s never the right thing now a days.
I demand a war to bring the dead boy back
no matter what his name is this time.
I at least demand a song. a song will do just fine.
look at what the lord has made.
above Missouri, sweet smoke.
Cassie Westrate (’14) graduated with a double major in writing and international development studies. She currently lives in West Michigan, where she works as a writer, hangs out with her pet bird, and fights crime by night. Just kidding about the crime.