Do You Know About Malcolm X Park?
Moving to Washington from the absolute Middle-of-Nowhere in Upstate New York a few weeks ago, I felt a certain urgency to find every bit of open space I could in the District. So I was delighted when a yoga teacher in my Logan Circle neighborhood told me of a wonderful little city getaway called Malcolm X Park.
“It’s got huge trees, and it’s built into a hillside, with the most wonderful cascading waterfalls in the summer,” she said. On Sundays, she noted, people come to the park for drumming circles.
Oddly enough, I couldn’t find the park on any city maps.
Jogging with my husband a week later, we landed at 15th and W Streets, where, lo and behold, there stood a hillside park with magnificent trees, and what looked to be cascading waterfalls, empty in the cold weather.
But wait. “This isn’t Malcolm X Park,” I said to my husband, puzzled because the sign read “Meridian Hill Park.” All came together when a good friend told me to ignore the sign and all the maps. The fact is, she said, everyone in Washington knew the park to be what it was: Malcolm X Park, a name acquired during the riots in Washington in the late 1960s.
As I jogged back there another recent morning, the weather warm enough to lure robins to bob in the browned grass, I stopped in front of a large bronze statue of one of our notoriously bad presidents, James Buchanan. Peering into the turquoised face of this unremarkable leader, it hit me:
What the hey was James Buchanan doing presiding over this park, which sits in the shadow of Howard University and is squarely in a part of Washington that is overflowing with rich African American history?
With all due respect, that statue just doesn’t belong there. Buchanan was pro-slavery: He lobbied a fellow Pennsylvanian, Supreme Court Justice Robert Cooper Grier, to vote with the majority in the Dred Scott case, an infamous ruling that held that Congress couldn’t exclude slavery in the western territories. Buchanan’s push to uphold slavery earned him the denunciation of no less than Abraham Lincoln, who feared that Buchanan and the pro-slavery forces in the government would try to nationalize slavery.
Am I alone among the many visitors to the park to be thoroughly offended by the statue? Am I alone in finding that the ambiguity over the park’s name amounts to a long and distinctly painful insult?
As a teacher of English, I am frequently reminded about the great power of language, how our words magically create reality. So often, we are what we are because of what we hear about ourselves in the words of other people. Or we are what we tell ourselves we are. We gain pride and respect about ourselves, and about our surroundings, from the labels we give to all kinds of things — including the public spaces in which we live.
We are living through one of the most momentous periods of history. We have seen an African American man with a provocative name defy all the odds and step into the most powerful office in our nation.
Isn’t it time we as a nation recognize that names matter and that we as a nation owe it to African Americans to respect the names that matter so much to them? The people have overwhelmingly spoken their minds in naming a magnificent urban park on a hillside in Columbia Heights. The people call it Malcolm X Park for a reason, and they’ve been calling it that for four decades. Isn’t it time that the National Park Service, which operates this and all other city park spaces in Washington, makes amends and removes the statue? And isn’t it time the NPS officially renames the site to reflect a people’s history and their pride, and what we all should know by now is reality?
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