Jefferson, Adams, Hancock, and Washington all gazed down on the scene below, citizens of the nation they had envisioned, watching over the documents that started it all. Their faces were painted across murals that swept the circumference of the room. We were in the rotunda of the National Archives, a dome dimly lit with hazy, yellowish light, soft enough to protect the pages disintegrating feet below. This was my first trip to our nation’s capital. At last, I was going to see those three hallowed documents that guide so much of who I am and what I love: The Bill of Rights, the Declaration of Independence, and the Constitution.
With me was my dad, the person who has never failed to indulge my love of history, my inherent need to understand why our nation works the way it does. Together, we have discussed school papers and presentations and debated the moral dilemmas that face our country. In college when I received a new assignment, I would call him on my walk home from class, fleshing out ideas as I walked across the quad. Conversations with him had continued to inspire many of the pieces I had written for Nasty Politics. And now here we were, together in the rotunda.
And there we met Stan.
Stan is not his real name, but for the purposes of anonymity that is how I will refer to him. Stan stood in a small alcove directly behind the Constitution which was at the center of the rotunda’s display. He wore the garb typical of a security guard: black pants with a white uniformed shirt, a tie, and a black cap. I should note here that when my gaze first landed on the Constitution I lost any semblance of the limited composure I had had to begin with. I clasped my hands to my face and kept repeating, “Oh my god, it’s really here!” while punching my dad on the shoulder. Not exactly the graceful first impression I had intended to leave on our nation’s most famous document. I turned to Stan, forgetting who he was, and said, “Can you believe it?!” a supremely stupid question to ask Stan who could in fact believe it as this was his job. “I’m sorry,” I said, “I’ve been waiting to see this my whole life.” Stan laughed and said that was perfectly okay. I asked Stan if people often had crazy reactions to being in this room and he nodded wisely and said, “Oh I’ve seen some things you would not believe. I’ve seen mothers who come in here and cry because their sons are off at war. I’ve seen some people ask what they were looking at.” “No!” I protested, horrified by the notion that someone could find their way into the rotunda and not know what they were seeing. “We were just saying,” my dad added, “that every person who works in the White House and in Congress should have to walk through this room every morning before they go to work.” My dad and I had been lamenting the fact that being in the presence of these documents would mean nothing to Donald Trump, who in any case has probably never read them. Stan nodded his head, “Yes sir, I completely agree with you on that.”
Unabashed liberals, I continued, “I bet he doesn’t even know what the Bill of Rights is - he’s never had to fight for anything. He doesn’t care, he doesn’t represent our country.” Stan chuckled and gave me a knowing look. “It’s part of my job that I cannot express my own political opinions,” he began, “but I will say this: ma’am, you got that right.” I smiled. “Can I ask,” I said, “has it been different working here since Trump was elected?” “Oh, yes,” Stan began. “I’ve been working here, standing in this spot for 13 years. I’ve met war heroes and politicians and families from across the world. But people act differently now. Some good, some bad.” I asked him, “Does it seem like rude people have gotten worse?” and he sighed. Leaning on the wall next to him, he looked at us and said, “Since Trump became president, I’ve had people come up to me, get inches away from my face and say ‘What are you doing here? We don’t need people like you.’'” Stan, by the way, is black. I was appalled. My naivety and faith in humankind has long been the fodder for my love of politics; if you don’t love people, this probably isn’t the business for you. But I couldn’t believe that even here, in this most sacred of rooms, people could be so wrong. I wanted to believe that this room was a holy space, somehow spared the ugliness rising to the surface of our long flawed country.
“I’ll tell you a story,” Stan said. “I had a friend named Billy who I grew up with. We came from the same neighborhood, went to the same school. Our mamas were friends and we grew up like brothers. Then we joined the Navy at the same time. We did it together - the only difference between us is he was white and I was black. Now, Billy liked to fight. He could be the happiest guy you ever met, but get on his bad side and he’d take you outside - you know what I mean. So when this guy walked up in here and asked me what I was doing, what someone like me was doing here, I told him about Billy. And I said to him, ‘Now, I’m not gonna fight you - that’s not in my nature. But I could call my friend Billy up and I can’t make any promises about what he’s gonna do.’” He laughed and we laughed with him. For all I knew, there could have been 80 people in the rotunda at that moment; it didn’t matter. I could only see Stan. “I served in the Navy with Billy for years. I love this job - I know some people may have a problem with me, but they just don’t know me. They don’t know any better. They may feel a little bolder now, because of Trump, but that won’t last. I know what I protect. And I get to talk to people every day about our country and stand here with the most important papers in the world. And I’m proud of that.”
Without conscious thought I stuck out my hand. Stan took it in his and we shook. “Thank you for what you’ve done,” I said. “Thank you for everything you’ve done for our country. It’s an honor to stand here and talk to you.” Here, in this sacred space, was the very embodiment of patriotism. Stan had a love for our country that had not dwindled or faded but been made stronger by his lived experiences, even those that had been unjust. I told Stan that I wanted to change Washington, that I loved our country more than anything and that it should be filled with people like him, people who have hope and compassion and integrity. I told him that I wanted to come work in DC and make real changes, that my dream was to be in the White House. To some, that may sound naive or childish, or worse like some kind of line. But Stan believed me. We were on the same page. He looked me in the eye and said, “Then honey, you do it. Because we need you. When you run for office, you give me a call. You’ve got my vote.” I beamed. We joked that he may be in a wheelchair by the time my political career begins, but I told him I’d put him in a wagon and pull him around the campaign trail with me. “You can keep Dad company and knock on doors,” I joked.
We thanked Stan for talking to us and for guarding our nation’s birth certificate. My dad and I shook his hand one last time and then we left the rotunda. Outside in the antichamber, we sat on a marble bench and stared at each other. “You’re never gonna forget that conversation,” my dad said. I scrambled in my purse for a piece of paper and a pen and wrote down everything Stan had said, everything we had talked about.
When our constitution was drafted, Stan could not own land or vote. Had he been around in 1788, he would likely have been a slave, thereby counting as three fifths of a white man for the purposes of representation. Stan would have had to live through the Civil War, waited for the 13th Amendment, 14th Amendment, and finally 15th Amendment in 1870 to grant him the right to vote. If he had lived in a southern state, odds are he would have been forced to wait nearly another century until the Voting Rights Act of 1965 before he could ever sign his name to a ballot. Stan had gone to war on behalf of a country that was created without him in mind because he believed in the evolution of our nation. Our nation’s ability to adapt and grow has long been it’s greatest trait and the beauty of our founding documents is that they left the door open for our laws to reflect these changes. Stan, who had been treated with hostility and attacked by prejudice, loved his job. He was a true patriot because he believed in the goodness of the American experiment. I couldn’t help but think how much worthier Stan was to be president than Donald Trump. Through ignorance, the Trump administration may briefly halt the arc of progress, but it will continue to bend forward nonetheless. Trump will not diminish the voices of people like Stan nor will he diminish the spirit of those who believe America is great, not because of how it began but because of how it evolved. I had stood in the rotunda and looked up at the faces of famous white men. There was no face that resembled Stan and no face that resembled me. Yet there we stood, together inspired by the possibility of a better future.
“Honey,” Stan said, “you better believe you can change the world.”