Nelson Moves In
Washington, DC’s Massachusetts’s Avenue is called “Embassy Row” for a reason: lining the street for several miles are a string of mostly stately buildings which now serve as the Washington home to foreign governments.
These buildings are on their second lives, at least, having originally been built as stately mansions of the rich and powerful who would wine and dine members of congress and the executive.
Not all are embassies, though. The fabulous Anderson House at Massachusetts and Q, is today the home of the stodgy Society of the Cincinnati, an organization composed of male descendants of officers serving under Washington in the Revolutionary War. (Larz Anderson entertained, among others, President William Howard Taft, whose out-sized behind was a common sight in the formal dining room.)
Just up the street from the Anderson’s is one of the largest embassies in the city, that of Great Britain. Part English country manor and office complex it sits next to our vice president’s house.
Many of the embassies plop a statue out front and Britain is no exception. Pride of place goes to the 20th century Titan Winston Churchill best known for his unwavering belief that Britain would triumph over Hitler’s Nazi plague. The lesser known Churchill is the racist one, the arch imperialist who believed in the inherent superiority of white (and English speaking) people over all others. The Churchill statute perfectly captures his “ever forward” ethos as he is caught mid-stride, foot forward, in his famous “V for Victory” salute.
Churchill would have awakened, metaphorically at least, the other day, to a new neighbor, just across the way evincing a most disturbing gesture: a Black man with his fist in the air.
In a bit of real estate irony, the embassy of South Africa is directly across from the Brits so that the former lords of the manor (and the veldt) can look out on their former subjects, and now, their Demigod leader, Nelson Mandela, or at least a statue of him.
His statue was unveiled on Friday.
Mandela is the father of a liberated and democratic South Africa whose personal story is a life dedicated to the struggle to end apartheid and a 27 year stint in prison. It also includes his admission that he engaged in bombing campaigns and armed struggle to topple the repressive South African government.
These two iconic leaders gaze at one another across a broad Washington street, bearing testimony to the travails of the 20th century. They prove again that all of us are capable of good and evil and that statues can serve to both highlight and obscure the complex and morally ambiguous narrative of history.