To Believe, or Not to Believe?

Anxiety. That’s one of the main feelings emanating from DC this week and engulfing many of us, almost to the point of being too overwhelmed to imagine better days. We’re trying to process a growing surge of negative—even scary—news.

North Korea’s nuclear weapons are increasingly capable of destructive force, the Pentagon tells us.

We’re struggling to process conflicting characterizations of a tax plan being promoted by Republican members of Congress and the President as a panacea, but critiqued by Democrats and a long list of economists as dangerous to the nation’s security and long-term welfare.

Meanwhile, sexual abuse and harassment charges have hit both parties hard.  Conyers and Franken: ethics investigations launched, and calls for resignations. Roy Moore: the possibility of expulsion, should Alabamans elect him, raised by members of his own party.  While the swift responses we’ve seen from organizations like NBC news via its firing of Matt Lauer could be taken as a sign of progress in the face of efforts like #MeToo, it’s been discouraging, as commentator Ana Navarro points out, and Representative Jackie Speier and Senator Kristin Gillibrand confirm by way of proposing a new bill, to see that Congress’s past record of monitoring itself in this context has been quite bleak.

I’m having trouble, some days, being hopeful about our country.

Working in ARCHIVES for much of my research, I try to cultivate a long view. But a long view is hard to achieve amid the daily barrage of negative news, so much of it coming from our national capital—a site from which, historically, hopeful discourse has often aimed to buoy us up in tough times.

When visiting DC recently, I sought to recover some optimism from earlier eras. I tried to build a counter-archive of images and words—to combat my own growing pessimism and to resist the negative discourse permeating our communication networks.

National Museum of African American History and Culture.
National Museum of African American History and Culture: Photo by John Coe Robbins

I gathered bits of hope from among some of our national monuments, particularly those that mark milestones of success after long periods of challenge, since many challenges right now sometimes feel insurmountable. Today, re-opening my phone’s string of photos from that trip, I did find hopeful reminders of American success overcoming obstacles in places like the World War II memorial and the new National Museum of African American History and Culture.

At the Belmont-Paul Women’s Equality National Monument, I saw artifacts from the long, often discouraging, campaign to secure American women’s voting rights.

Women’s Equality National Monument
Women’s Equality National Monument: Photo by John Coe Robbins

Along with political maneuvering against their cause, leaders of that movement faced persistent stereotyping depicting them and their vision for America in demeaning terms, as evident in some of the museum’s artifacts. Nonetheless, despite continued assaults on their own identities as American citizens, these women persisted.


Visiting that site—interestingly not established as an official U.S. monument until 2016—I found encouragement in the stories of women’s dedication to this campaign, a cause committed to gender equity, yet, as leaders like Alice Paul insisted, also aimed at enhancing the meaning and practice of democratic equality for all.

Scrolling back through my phone photos, I also “returned” to the Roosevelt monument that stretches along the DC tidal basin. In those images—statues of Franklin and Eleanor but also carvings commemorating their words—I found stirring reminders that our long time of facing the challenges of America’s deepest economic depression and its unavoidable engagement in a World War did eventually achieve victory.

Eleanor Roosevelt Monument
Eleanor Roosevelt Monument

In commemorate words from the Roosevelts, I drew transportable mental maps for cultivating a hopeful focus now, in a time of great economic disparity, a seemingly perpetual state of war, and a period when we seem awash, daily, not in the kind of uplifting rhetoric of a Roosevelt (or a Churchill), but, instead, language that debases the American culture so many have struggled to protect.


Photos at the Roosevelt site by Sarah R. Robbins

It was an easy stroll along the pathway there to the Martin Luther King, Jr., Memorial, which I had visited numerous times before, in person and online.

Martin Luther King Memorial
Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial

The National Park Service website for this monument—like those for the Belmont-Paul House and the Roosevelt site—enables virtual visiting, something I just did again today.  One line on the King Memorial’s website—“Out of the Mountain of Despair, a Stone of Hope”—reminded me of a favorite teacher-led project from the Keeping and Creating American Communities program that I co-directed back in Georgia years ago.Middle school educator Bonnie Webb took her students to the King Center and the Martin Luther King, Jr., National Historic Site in Atlanta.

Martin Luther King, Jr., National Historic Site in Atlanta
Martin Luther King, Jr., National Historic Site in Atlanta; photo by Bonnie Webb

She led them through a structured yet flexible set of stops at the site, and then invited them to write about their responses. On the website for the KCAC project (an admittedly dated format, but one still rich in resources), I went back today to re-read those middle schoolers’ texts. While recognizing the darker forces King had to battle, these writings from youthful visitors also provided signs of their energy and commitment to making a better culture.

Signs of Hope

Bonnie is retired, and these young writers are young adults. “Where are they headed now?” I wondered. I would bet they are doing and saying positive things, and sharing their inclusive vision of America’s tomorrow with others.

When we look back to the past and forward to the future through archival stories like these, I’ve reminded myself today, we can hope. Whether historic sites we visit and mine for role models, or positive images gathered and re-visited from our personal journeys, or lessons from young leaders who have looked beyond a present moment to a better day, we need, in the current moment, to tap into such cultural resources to find our better selves, to craft a better national community.

For me, a key path for that work involves empowering students to write the future, even as they learn from the inspiring lessons of the past. So I’m headed back to class, to support their learning and continue learning myself.

Eleanor’s and Franklin’s words, MLK’s bold image stepping out from a hard rock toward a new world shaped by optimism, and suffragettes’ persistent marching forward—I take these with me.

I choose Aspiration over Anxiety.

Photo by Sarah R. Robbins

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