Back in the summer of 2004, roughly fifteen months after the United States invaded Iraq, I sat in the United States House of Representatives, high in the balcony on to the right of the lectern for he who stood at it, and listened to Colin Powell speak to a chamber full of congressional interns. It was a hard time for the United States. The Bush presidency and the invasion of Iraq had led to a sense of national division as great as we had experienced in my lifetime, and certainly since the Vietnam War. I tried to remain aloof and skeptical in listening to the Secretary of State, but that posture was impossible to maintain. Fully on display were the qualities that made Powell uniquely able to survive the loss of credibility that resulted from his 2003 speech to the United Nations pitching the administration’s evidence that the Saddam Hussein regime was a terrorist threat. He was dignified, humorous, charismatic in his own straight-laced, soldierly way, and implacably confident. I still remember seeing him as he spoke, coolly wrapping his right foot behind his left, right foot propped up on his left ankle by the wing tip, like a golfer resting easily on his seven-iron.

And he was honest. His pitch to this large group of interns—college students, from Democratic and Republican congressional offices, who had in common very little in politics but perhaps the prevailing cynicism of the era—was that the promise of the United States of America was not all for naught. He insisted—or perhaps “proclaimed” is a better word, because no man who ever saved three men from a helicopter crash has need to insist that anyone believe what he says—that the nations of the world still looked at America in awe, still respected our founding ideals. He told a story I will never forget: of being in a meeting of an official within the government of Japan, and hearing that official of a foreign government, not even a speaker of English as his first language, recite from memory Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address.

Saturday was a day of paralyzing sadness, watching from Washington the events taking place in my town. The emotions cascaded through the day: scoffing at images of angry white boys carrying tiki torches; incredulity at the banal evil, and dangerously banal, sight of white men marching down market street in ragtag armor and artillery; anger at the sight of a black man being beaten with a pole in the Market Street garage, adjacent to the police station; shivering fear at the video of a pewter Dodge Challenger plowing murderously into a crowd of counter-protestors; heartache at the news of the death by ramming, then of death by helicopter accident; and at the end of it all, despondency—deep, deep despondency.

I could only run. I could think of only one place to run to. Down East Capitol, up Pennsylvania, west on Constitution. Once past the Smithsonian buildings and the Holocaust Museum, once the Mall rises up to the pinnacle of the Washington Monument, this felt like a place very far from the trouble spot 116 miles due southwest. A clear, blue sky framed by billowy clouds reflecting sunlight mingled with a heavy, dark wall of storm clouds gathering around. The intersection between the two sat right atop the Washington Monument as if the two shades of light were in a tug-of-war over ownership of the monument to the founder of the nation, Virginian, slave owner, the first president of the United States. People—some locals, some descended from out of town—speckled the Mall.

Running amidst the monuments toward the destination, past Washington to the sprawling arms of World War II, helped re-frame the day’s sadness within the sweep of history. A wise man recently reminded me: we are a baby country. Or perhaps we are an adolescent one. The story of each of our individual lives is, in one way, the working-out of the traumas we suffer as children. And so it is in the life of nations: there is always a founding error, a cultural wrong enshrined in law. Here in America, we struggle to cope with the self-inflicted trauma of the offense present at our birth, and in is gestation as a rag-tag group of colonies, of what would become a campaign of terrorism lasting over 300 years against black people originally chained-up, corralled like cattle, squeezed in hulls of ships, and moved across the ocean to a life of hard labor, beatings, and rapes.

The Mall tells the story of that trauma, and the attempts to heal it: the monument to Washington, slave owner who freed his slaves, stones divided in two shades because construction was halted during the Civil War; the new African American history museum, where at the opening ceremony Michelle Obama sweetly clasped George W. Bush in a now-famous picture, and where twice in recent months, a noose has been left for tourists to discover; and the monument to World War II, in which black soldiers fought to defend a nation wherein they could be abused physically, mentally, and emotionally, all with impunity.

Behaviors that seem new when they occur in different seasons of our lives are actually reanimations of puerile tendencies.  What appears like discontinuity is often, in fact, continuous.  What occurred today as the murderous provocation of an angry white boy from Ohio, is the reanimation of three white men in Texas who tied James Byrd to a pickup truck and dragged him for three miles, is the reanimation of a black teenager in Boston using the American flag as a spear to assault a black lawyer, is the reanimation of the mutilation of a 14-year-old boy in Mississippi, is the reanimation of “neighborhood improvement associations” that “welcomed” new black residents into white neighborhoods in post-World War I Detroit, is the reanimation of the construction of these statues of Confederate soldiers, which were not monuments to noble historical persons—like Robert E. Lee, who insisted that slavery was good for black people, and who purposefully broke up almost every slave family on his plantation, and who fought for the Confederacy expressly to preserve the institution of slavery in America—but, no different than the severed heads of Syrian soldiers stacked on fence stakes in Raqqa by Islamic State, not-so-subtle Jim Crow-era warnings to black Americans that they should not believe this idea that they are entitled to the same respect from law and persons as whites.  No, though I have had that terrible thought that only a white man can think—“How can this be happening in America?”—this trauma has always been with us.

I begin having to dodge pedestrians.  The open torso of the World War II Memorial was dappled with people.  People with every shade of skin, from vanilla to chocolate brown.  It is tourist season in Washington, after all, and unseasonably cool under the cloud cover of an oncoming shower.  A black man crouches to take a picture of his posing girlfriend.  A southeast Asian family—father, mother, daughter—rests on the wall guarding the Washington.  A group of Latin American girls giggle among themselves while walking on the pathway.  Running around the back of the World War II, along the pikes etched with the names of the fifty states, looking for the stone emblazoned with the word “VIRGINIA”, I stop to keep from running through the picture that a white man takes of his wife and daughter.  Why are all these people here? I wonder.  People from all over the country, people from all over the world.  What are they doing here at these memorials to our sins, our pain, our trauma?  Why do they keep coming?

Behind my destination, shrouded in wispy clouds, the sky descended and intensified into a brilliant blue.  That cobalt sheet, along with the rows of oak trees lining each side of the Reflecting Pool, framed a marble temple that seemed to pulsate on this day, that seemed to call out to me to start running, to call me out of my sadness.  His words hung over me, and hang over us, like that stern, prophetic cobalt sky.

One-eighth of the whole population were colored slaves, not distributed generally over the Union, but localized in the southern part of it.  These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest.  All knew that this interest was somehow the cause of the war.

These words, this American scripture, seem ever present.  How can I, one hundred and fifty years later, be drawn to them as if they embodied all the immediacy and truth of a dark and trenchant prophecy?  We were a young nation then.  We are a young nation now.  Our trauma remains.  Like whiplash in slow motion, we remain pulled at one side the law of human nature, which is to ruthlessly shape the body politic along tribal unity of like appearance and language, and the other the law of moral principle, embodied in promises of much broader scope than those who made the promises were aware of.  Bold, perhaps reckless promises.  Like the Pharisees who hoarded the bold promises from the Prophets, we, here in America, have always had Pharisees who seek to hoard the bold promises set alongside the division of black citizens into three-fifths of a person.

To strengthen, perpetuate, and extend this interest was the object for which the insurgents would rend the Union even by war, while the Government claimed no right to do more than to restrict the territorial enlargement of it. Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained.

I jog up the temple steps and am once again surprised by the faces.  Just like the clouds ranged from white to dark blue, the faces ranged from pink to brown.  They were ignorant of the tragedy in my town, so the faces smiled.  Smiling faces from all the nations.  Brown faces.  Walnut faces.  Almond faces.  Ocre faces.  All smiling.  Taking pictures.  A woman and her boyfriend pose in front of Lincoln.  Black children run around.  An Indian family lines up for a picture.  Why are these people here?  What brings them here of all places?

I read the words.

Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes. “Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh.”

The prophet’s words are undergirded by a kind of grace, by a generosity toward the pharisaical slave-owners that the slave-owners did not deserve, by a humility toward his own side that his own side had no incentive to show.  This prophetic grace is what pushed Lincoln above the status of political leader, to prophet.  Do I think America is party to some divine purpose above and beyond the divine purpose set before all nations?  I hesitate.  But it would be equally imprudent to deny that the traumas suffered in the hearts of women and men cannot be suffered in the heart of a nation, and that the healing that can occur in the hearts of women and men cannot occur in the heart of a nation.  For our centuries-long national trauma is rooted in traumas afflicting the hearts of human beings.

Last July, the week that Philando Castile was needlessly killed in Minnesota, and Alton Sterling was needlessly killed in Louisiana, and the night before officers in Dallas—who had, earlier in the day, posed for pictures with Black Lives Matter marchers—were needlessly killed, I gathered the courage to ask my friend Paul a question.

“Do you ever think about quitting this country?  Just deciding it’s beyond help for black people?”

Paul didn’t blink.

“Hell no.  My ancestors helped build this country.”

We looked out, all of our faces—cocoa, pink, amber, khaki—look toward the Washington.  Rain begins to fall.  Sheets of rain.  Heavy sheets of rain baptize the Mall.

August 12, 2017