Today we hear from Brandon Brock, board member of PFLAG Napa and member of PFLAG San Francisco. As you may remember, Brandon and SF PFLAGer Lori Hawkins traveled cross country via train to attend the 2013 PFLAG National Convention. Here's more about his arrival in Washington DC:
Marble was once the most opulent and grandest construction material in the world's most important buildings. Modern living has turned our kitchens, hotel lobbies and bathrooms into glistening showcases full of beautifully laid marble tiles. Our homes have grown into large, luxurious spaces over the last several decades and our casual use of marble in home construction has softened its impact. A recent trip to our nation's capitol provided me with a much richer appreciation of the most famous of metamorphic rock (and countertops).
My train arrived in Washington, DC for the National PFLAG Convention a few days ahead of schedule so I decided to take a quick tour around town. I grew up in Arkansas so I had never visited Washington; the drive was just too far. I had never seen any of the famous buildings or monuments so I stepped out for a sightseeing adventure. Almost all the monuments in DC are fully made of marble and I began to wonder how many marble quarries were expended to create the beautiful city.
Ancient cities like Rome and Athens must have been dazzling places to see. The shining white of temple columns and grand arched domes must have been impressive. It would have been the ultimate conquering of nature for a society that could recreate the world as they wanted. Carved along the walls of those ancient buildings were words that were meant to last forever.
It has always been my dream to visit the Supreme Court and stand at the sight where history has been made. The landmark June Supreme Court rulings that sided in favor of my marriage with my husband, Alex, were still fresh in my mind on that October morning. As I walked past the glistening United States Supreme Court and I had to put on my sunglasses from the reflective glare from its tons and tons of white marble. I felt as if I was wandering around a long-forgotten, ancient city. Impressive even by today's standards, the Supreme Court building reminded me of the Parthenon temple in the Acropolis in Athens, Greece.
Here, I saw the first of many chiseled marble carvings at the top of its eight marble columns: "Equal Justice Under Law". Anyone would know, upon just looking at the vast white plaza and intimidating building, that our country aspires to those four chiseled words.
I walked across the street towards the towering dome of the United States Capitol building with its endless marble columns, its beautifully towering dome and well-manicured lawns. Inside, I took a quick tour of the interior and our tour guide whisked us past stately rooms, totally decked out in marble, as bronze and marble statues of politicians and national figures surrounded the circular walls. I felt as if I was in an ancient Roman temple.
Our tour group collectively looked up when we walked under the Capitol's majestic dome. Pictured almost 200 feet above us on its concave surface was a giant fresco painting, The Apotheosis of Washington. Completed in 1865, the artist borrowed figures from the old world and updated them to suit the new American public. Neptune, the Roman god of the Sea, is busy laying the recently-completed Transatlantic Telegraph Cable. Vulcan, Roman god of fire, also appears to have just fabricated a new steam locomotive with his anvil and hammer. It felt like the ancient Roman gods were lending their powers to create our infant country, still less than one hundred years old when originally painted.
I smiled as I noticed a very distinct rainbow stretching across the cloudy scene depicted under the Dome. In the painting, Minerva, the Roman goddess of wisdom, speaks to Benjamin Franklin as young scholars busily write down every word of her divine knowledge with the rainbow jutting through the middle of the scene.
Rainbows painted in 1865 certainly didn't have the LGBT association that they have today. Even though it was painted almost 150 years ago, it seemed as if the Capitol was peeking into the future and knew how powerful the symbol of a rainbow would become. There it was, painted next to portrayals of George Washington and Benjamin Franklin, under the dome of the tallest building in Washington, DC.
The rotunda fresco's central point, across from the Minerva's rainbow, features a floating banner that reads in Latin: E Pluribus Unum. "Out of Many, One", a phrase also found on American currency, speaks both to the different states that combine to create the single American country and the diversity of its people. Both would have weighed heavy on the minds of those who were constructing the Capitol done during the days of the Civil War.
My tour group moved on towards the Senate chamber. As we turned a corner, I found an old window that was once an exterior wall from 1793. A bronze plaque announced a sobering glimpse into our country's troubled, complicated past: enslaved African-Americans were used to construct this part of the original Capitol building.
This elegant, majestic symbol that stands for the best facets of America was built using slave labor, just like the marble temples in Ancient Rome. It seems that our civilization borrowed more than just Rome's architecture and love of marble; we borrowed their slavery too. I had not known this fact and it weighed heavy on my mind for the rest of the day's sightseeing.
I left Capitol Hill and strolled towards the tranquil waters of the nearby Tidal Basin. Set alone and among a cluster of trees sat the Jefferson Memorial. Its shape reminded me of Rome's great Pantheon temple with its low domed ceiling and its geometric architecture. The Memorial had the ever-present marble columns along its exterior which opened up for a view of the colossal bronze statue of President Jefferson, centered inside.
The interior of the Jefferson Monument features four of Jefferson's quotes, inscribed into its curving marble walls. I recognized the most famous lines from the Declaration of Independence, which gave America its first breath of personality: "We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal".
As I read the words written with Jefferson's own pen and now chiseled into marble, I thought back to the 1793 exterior window in the Capitol. President Jefferson was a slave holder. I wondered if the slaves under his control knew the slaves who worked on the Capitol building.
On the opposing wall stood another chiseled quote from Jefferson: "Laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind". I raised an eyebrow and I continued reading.
"As new discoveries are made, new truths discovered and manners and opinions change, with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also to keep pace with the times".
My jaw literally dropped. Here it seemed that Jefferson is predicting the future. He sees that culture evolves and hopes that our society evolves with it. Jefferson later suggests that we might as well expect our baby clothes to fit us as adults. The chiseled marble wall compares this to a "civilized society to [forever] remain under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors".
At this point, I was convinced that Jefferson is speaking to the future. The "barbarous ancestors" were his generation and their regimen was slavery, among others. He predicted that as one era passes into another, the fresh crop of people and ideas would look towards the former generation as old-fashioned, strange and unnecessary. The marble was speaking to me.
I walked back down the steps of the Memorial and continued along the Tidal Basin towards the Franklin D. Roosevelt Memorial. It, too, was engulfed in marble.
During his life in public service, President Roosevelt went to great lengths to suppress his disability and his dependence on a wheelchair. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt's words are carved into the memorial: "Franklin's illness taught him the greatest of all lessons- infinite patience and never-ending persistence." Americans today acknowledge Roosevelt's disability not as a sign of weakness but as a sign of strength.
Among the displays of Roosevelt's life and accomplishments was this quote: "We must remember that any oppression, any injustice, any hatred, is a wedge designed to attack our civilization." These words ring just as true today as they did when spoken over seventy years ago.
I noticed that the sun was setting so I hurried to the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial. To call it only breathtaking would be an understatement.
I walked through a small park that lead me to a peaceful marble plaza. Carved into a giant slab of sandstone were the words "Out of the mountain of despair, a stone of hope". On the front side of this block, called The Stone of Hope, is carved Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
King's gaze is across the water towards the Lincoln Memorial, the site of his famous "I Have a Dream" speech in 1963. Arms folded and wearing a suit, the strong figure holds an expression that is stern, confident and forward-looking. Dr. King's statue only appears to be partially carved from the rock. It's as if the sculpture was only half finished; I see this as an metaphor to the civil rights movement at the time of King's assassination. Long dark grey slabs of marble surrounded the statue with over a dozen of his most famous quotes. "The arc of the moral universe bends towards justice" and "The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy."
Words carved in marble present our most cherished ideals. Without saying a word, the marble of Washington explains the ideals of the American people. The perfect proportions and symmetry of the Supreme Court building stands for equality for our diverse population and our complicated history.
Constructed during the Civil War, the United States Capitol building made me ponder the long and slow passage of time and our country's troubled history with slavery. The Roman Gods depicted under its colossal dome gave a direct connection to ancient times and the rainbow which stretches across the painting made me think of patience. Each generation builds on the advances of the generation before it.
The Jefferson Memorial spoke of evolution and the future. Jefferson's own words predicted that today's ideas might be viewed as backwards tomorrow. It gave me hope that the homophobia and transphobia of today will soon be seen as ridiculous as racial segregation in the 1950s.
The Roosevelt Memorial reminded me of inner strength and the overcoming of obstacles. Life's struggles can teach us valuable lessons that we otherwise might not have learned. The Dr. King Memorial represents courage, hope and conviction. One look into the eyes of his statue and I understood the courage of the man and the movement that he ushered in.
Words carved into marble, which may last thousands of years, give Americans the hope and inspiration to works towards that elusive more perfect union that our Constitution strives for.
My day as a tourist came to a close and my aching feet encouraged an early night to bed. Early the next morning, that extra sleep came in handy for the start of the PFLAG convention. As I walked into the convention hall, I thought about all the marble and symbols I discovered the day before. PFLAG's movement envisions a world of support, acceptance and equality and our members are patient enough to work towards those ideals. Equality, hope, inner strength and courage are facets of the American story that PFLAG incorporates into every part of our mission.
I stood in the back of the large convention hall and surveyed the excited convention-goers and I smiled as I realized what I was viewing; PFLAG is a vehicle for all those American ideals carved in marble. Proof is chiseled all over Washington.