Famous for its white marble edifices, green lawns and pink cherry blossoms, our nation’s Mall is also — finally — becoming a little more colorful, a little more like America.
“I feel like we really have a reason to come now, like we’re represented here,” said Felicia Simmons, a 33-year-old teacher who came Monday with her two small children and husband from Crofton to visit the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial. “I’m loving the atmosphere. The mixture of people.”
It was the first time the African American family made the trip to visit the monuments and memorials of their country’s capital. Because it was also the first time they believed their story, too, was being told in stone.
Ever since the memorial was officially opened in August, the change has been obvious. Not just on the holiday dedicated to King, but on all the other days of the year that a memorial now stands to honor an African American.
The National Park Service doesn’t have any way to keep statistics showing who visits the Mall or what race or ethnicity they are. But anyone who has spent any time here can spot the difference.
“Oh, I see it. I’ve been seeing so many more African American families here now. It does feel different,” said Devona McReynolds, 44, who visited the Mall occasionally when she lived in Prince George’s County. She now lives in New Jersey, but she returned this weekend to see the memorial with her mother.
“I am mature enough to remember the marches, to remember the speeches,” said her mother, Patricia McReynolds, 67. “This is wonderful now, seeing him here. Seeing us here.”
Hundreds of people gathered by the memorial in the cold, January air. The mood was both electric and prayerful, joyous and reflective.
It truly felt like a holiday.
“Any other year, I’d be working today,” said Philip Simmons, Felicia’s husband and an electrical engineer. “But this year, we came here. We have a place to come now.”
His wife added, “And we’ll be back next year.”
A tradition is born.
There was plenty of criticism of the sculpture itself: It doesn’t look like King, the artist isn’t African American, it looks like a Soviet-era monument, a truncated quote chiseled into the main edifice is going to have to be fixed.
But all that controversy seemed to get washed away in the crisp air this weekend. The mood, the people, the ideas, the emotions around the memorial were rich and palpable. It was granite moving blood, flesh and heart.
Neither Kevin Ben, a 19-year-old student, nor Dion McNeil, a 23-year-old landscaper, who live in Baltimore, had ever seen the Mall. Until Monday.
When they were done watching the Miss Black USA pageant contestants shiver in small red dresses and high, high heels in front of the memorial, they both gazed with awe at the sculpture.
“It’s inspiring,” Ben said.
“Yeah. I wouldn’t come here if this memorial wasn’t here,” McNeil said. “Wow.”
There were African American families who came in big groups — strollers, diaper bags, wheelchairs and walkers. Kids sat on Grandma’s lap while Grandma told them about life 50 years ago.
Plenty of white families, brown families, cafe au lait families were there, too, listening to gospel singers and reading the quotes carved in stone.
“This is what Dr. King wanted, children of all colors together,” said Robin Wright, a 56-year-old executive assistant from Glen Burnie. She came alone to reflect, to soak in what it means to have true representation in a space that America so honors.
Soon there will be a second destination for the country’s 37 million African Americans. The Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture will break ground on the Mall next month and is to open in 2015.
While it is easy to measure, through income disparity, unemployment, imprisonment rates and foster-care placements, how far we have to go to eliminate racial inequality in this country, Monday offered an opportunity to think about how far we have come.
“How many times today, with an African American man in the White House and this memorial here, how many times can I say, ‘In my lifetime’?” Wright asked.
“We tend to say we don’t have roots here,” she said, pointing a gloved hand at the three-story sculpture of King. “But he is here now, telling us we do.”
For previous columns by Petula Dvorak, go to postlocal.com.