Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Heat and History

Today was a combination of sweltering heat, 109 degrees here in Oklahoma City, and both recent and distant (?) history. I woke up this morning in Little Rock, Arkansas and Carolyn and I decided to take a few hours to explore the city. I must admit that my idea of a city is based firmly on growing up in close proximity to New York and my trip through several southern cities has been eye-opening. Little Rock was a clean, friendly, relatively uncrowded city. The fact that the air there was not filled with peeling car horns combined with the relative emptiness of the streets caught me off guard. We started our exploration at the Little Rock Visitor's Center where a very friendly woman gave us a list of 'must-do's' given our short time frame. The first sight she recommended was the William Jefferson Clinton Presidential Library, the second the River Market district, and the last Little Rock Central High School (a pivotal battleground in the fight to integrate public schools in the the 1950's). 
We first made our way to the Presidential Library, a bit of a misnomer since the term library evokes the idea of stodgy librarians, rows and rows of books, and a need to maintain subdued silence. The library could probably more aptly be called a museum where the Clinton's legacy is preserved. The history here is a history I clearly remember. I was an adult when Clinton ran and was elected twice and I remember the prosperity of his tenure and how starkly it contrasts to the times we are living in right now. I saw in the films and the mementos however, an idealized version of the time. Isn't this what history tends to do so often? Strip away the less-than-stellar moments and seek to preserve the best of what we were once-upon-a-time? I found myself wistful at the thought of the Clinton-era and the controversies seemed to be minor footnotes in the annals of history. I haven't decided yet if this is a good or bad thing. The library itself held replicas of both the Cabinet Room and the Oval Office and standing there in those rooms that are facsimiles of power centers it occurred to me just how glad I am to not have had to make the kinds of decisions that must have made by Clinton and his cabinet. It's fun to sit at the faux table, but I am glad that the I'll never have to confront the sorts of things that he and his cabinet confronted at the actual table. That is a heat I simply could not withstand. 

When we left the Clinton Library, Carolyn and I headed down to the River Market for lunch. The market, despite it's modern feel, reminded me in many ways of Faneuil Hall in Boston. It's most important function, at least for me today, was that it provided a safe haven from the oppressive heat of the day. For a few moments we escaped the relentless sun and it's steadfast determination to beat us down. 
Because we had very little time to waste (we needed to get to Oklahoma City) we headed to Little Rock Central High School just after lunch. The neighborhood the high school is in has seen better days but the school itself is an awe-inspiringly beautiful piece of architecture. It's difficult to stand in front of this building without feeling small. All of my concerns, physical and otherwise, seemed dwarfed there, not just by the building but also by the events that took place there. It is hard to imagine an America that openly divided along racial lines, but if I doubt the enduring nature of divisiveness in this country all I need to is watch the news coverage of the debt crisis and more broadly the coverage of the current president. I need only look in my own home to see that America has not yet reached it's stated tenet that 'all men are created equal'. In my own experience as the mother of African-American sons, I have seen prejudice up close and personal from store clerks, from teachers, from members of my sister's neighborhood association. I have seen too though the good and accepting people of the world. There are, in my experience more of the latter than the former. 
Standing in the shadow of the school, the focal point of so much of America's shortcomings, was humbling. I tried to image those nine students having to run the gambit of hatred, the angry shouts and vitriolic rhetoric from politicians that encircled these young teens must have been terrifying. The school is outwardly an impressive place but it's the knowledge of what happened there that gives it its real weight. As hot as I was standing in the shadow of that building today, I know I didn't face half the heat those nine teens did back in 1957. 
Tomorrow we're heading to downtown Oklahoma City where another chapter in American history was written. Where the heated rhetoric of militias culminated in the historic bombing of a federal building but more than that we're heading into a city that turned tragedy into strength, much the way those teens did as they walked up the steps of that Little Rock school and into the annals of history. 

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