Losing (and finding) my religion

Stand in the place where you live
Now face North
Think about direction
Wonder why you haven’t before.

And yes, before anyone points out the obvious, I’m mixing my REM references.

My partner and I often talk about our Bike Mojo.  But it occurred to me recently that we use “mojo” in a different way than most people.  When people talk about their mojo they are using it to describe a skill or ability.  Whether you are claiming to be an awesome playuh with the opposite sex or an awesome player of the guitar, talking about your mojo conveys something about your flash and dash.

But for us mojo  connotes in part our enjoyment of an activity, but also our desire for the activity in the first place.  So we’ll often have a conversation about how one or other of us has “lost their Bike Mojo.”  That doesn’t just mean that we don’t feel like biking, it means that when we do go biking, we don’t enjoy it.  The weather might be great, the road might roll accommodatingly, the wind might be always at our backs. . .but there’s no delight.  No joy.

My Bike Mojo has taken a few serious hits recently.

Missing in Action

In terms of cycling the first part of the year was great.  I finished a tough Super Randonneur series.  Bettered my time at the Mountains of Misery double metric, and despite not having the greatest of days some mates and I crushed the Savage Century at the Garrett County Gran Fondo.  This was followed by a wonderful bike tour in New York’s Finger Lakes region followed by another along the Coast of Oregon.  I was looking forward to finishing out the year with an interesting variety of 200k brevets and perhaps a few new local rides with Team Z.

Then the wheels fell off.  Almost literally.

First one shift lever on the Cervelo snapped off completely five miles into a team ride.  Then I managed to drop my chain down the inside of the cassette of Gypsy (for a reason I have still to figure out) chewing through a quarter of the spokes and a good part of the hub.  Both bikes went to the bike hospital.  While there the shop found a major problem with the Cervelo’s derailleur and it needs to be replaced.  So that left me commuting to work on my backup backup bike; my old Cannondale mountain bike which I haven’t ridden for, well, a long time.  And because I hadn’t ridden it for, well, a long time, I had forgotten how grabby the front brake was, so I crashed, stupidly, ineptly, going round a corner and bruised (or cracked, it amounts to the same thing unfortunately) a couple of ribs.  A pretty typical cycling injury.  I’ve been collecting the set over the years.

But the really depressing thing was that all of those problems seemed less like causes of the missing Mojo than symptoms.  Cycling for me is usually a valuable antidote to the generally overwhelming nature of everyday existence.  But sometimes cycling falls victim to the brutality of the banal and just can’t recover.  Plus, of course, this election season isn’t helping.

Taking the Road Most Traveled

So how do you get your Bike Mojo back?  For me, one thing I do is try to take a familiar route, one I’ve biked tons of times before, and pick just one thing to do differently.  This means taking a side trip or, usually, stopping to investigate something I have biked past dozens of times before.  One of my favorite go-to routes for this is biking south on the Mount Vernon trail.  For those outside the region, this paved trail starts just across the river from DC and runs south about 15 or so miles to (surprise!) Mount Vernon, Papa George’s home.  It is a heavily used commuter trail during the week and on weekends is packed with recreational cyclists; it links a few parks, runs right through downtown Alexandria, and for most of its length offers stunning views of the Potomac river.

It is also a trail that I have a bit of am ambivalent relationship with.  Because it is so heavily used you are exposed to the full spectrum of mobile human stupidity.  Cyclists without helmets, many barely in control of their bikes, runners and even walkers barely in control of their bodies and apparently convinced they are all alone out there and can spin and pivot and dodge at will. . .mainly because they, like everyone else, can’t seem to move anymore without a phone and/or headphones.  There are a few crazies, or people just having a bad day (I once saw a guy abruptly drop to a squat and scream at the phone held out in front of him, “Motherfuckerrrrrrr” in as pure an expression of rage as I have ever witnessed).  So I actually try to avoid chunks of the trail; I take a quiet residential bypass that cuts off a couple of miles of it; coming back I often feel more safe on the main drag through Del Rey than I do with facing the legions of half-arsed and heedless on the trail.

For all that, though, the thing that makes the trail so dangerous and vexing is also its greatest virtue (and there’s a metaphor for the US in there somewhere): the variety.  There is, of course, the weird and wonderful array of humanity.  But there are so many nooks and crannies along this route, and I’ve often used this as a mojo-restoration ride by stopping at one of the many spots on the trail I usually whiz by on an ordinary day.  I’ve stopped at the Jones Point lighthouse to see the boundary stone that marks what used to be the furthest southern point of the District.  I’ve stopped at a bench by the side of the trail and spent time gazing over one of the small patches of wetland that still remain on the river’s edge.  I’ve taken a quiet side loop around Fort Hunt park and stopped to look at the gun emplacements that I usually ride right by.

This time, on the way back, I stopped at the Freedmen Cemetery memorial in Alexandria.

The End of the Road

This region is, of course, lousy with memorials.  Many of them are frustratingly unimaginative.  Some dude on a horse.  A bunch of trad sorta Greekish columns that don’t say much of anything (I’m looking at you National WWII Memorial).  But these tend to form a perhaps necessary backdrop where designers (and those who fund them) are prepared to take a risk to produce something awe-inspiring.  It is those more unusual monuments to the past that tend to stand out.  The Korean War memorial, for example.  The quiet dignity of the 9/11 memorial at the Pentagon.  The singular combination of sheer improbability and appropriateness of the US Air Force memorial.

The Freedmen Cemetery memorial is set by the side of busy Washington Street at the extreme southern end of Alexandria, just before the road crosses over the massive Capital Beltway.  It is an unobtrusive memorial; a small fenced area with some kind of sculpture and a small structure.  I suspect that most people who whizz by it, even daily, don’t know what it is, and if they do know they are probably thinking “Oh, that’s nice that they are doing something to honor black history.”  I think that is how I would characterize my own response the many times I’ve driven by.

I have stopped near there on a previous ride.  On the other side of Washington Street is the St. Mary’s cemetery, a small but amazing plot, dating from the end of the eighteenth century, that slopes gently down toward what is now Jones Point park.  I’d stopped here, and wandered reflectively among the graves but I had never (and I suspect that there is another unfortunate metaphor here) bothered to cross the road.

But today I did.

The Freedmen cemetery (initially known as the Contraband cemetery) was created toward the end of the Civil War to fill an unfortunate need.  During the war, Alexandria was flooded with African Americans fleeing slavery; initially they were known as “contraband” because they were not regarded as free people but as unaffiliated property.  Many of them had fled surrounding areas for the Union lines but others had journeyed considerable distances, often losing friends and family members along the way (attacks by animals, drownings during river crossings, deaths from disease and starvation).

One of the lesser known stories about the Civil War is what a terrible place DC and the environs were during those years.  The place was both a giant armed camp and a massive hospital.  As the battles grew larger and more deadly most public buildings were pressed into service as hospitals; a substantial proportion of soldiers who found their way to these hospitals were dead already but didn’t yet know it, and the best that could be said is that eventually the Union managed to marshal the resources to help a reasonable number of these men meet their eventual end with what little dignity there is in death, which isn’t, of course, much.  But even before the mincing machine really cranked into high gear, the need to campaign mainly during the summer months in a climate that (as everyone living here now knows all too well) is toxically oppressive killed legions of soldiers through disease.

The sheer scale of the dying in the city of DC and its environs during the war beggars belief.  And this was among a population that the government had some vested interest in keeping alive in order to fight its battles.  The government had no such investment in the newly arrived African Americans.  They lived in conditions that were beyond belief and they died like flies.

The current memorial is a remnant of what was once a much larger site, set atop a hill overlooking Hunting Creek.  Even now, with a houses just across the way, a busy main street nearby, and the muted roar of the Beltway, it is a lonely spot.  And while there I completely lost track of time; when I looked at my watch I was surprised at how much time had elapsed.  And I hadn’t at all expected how powerfully the site would affect me.  Some of the reasons are obvious.  There is, for example, this:


Several of the graves of adults and children near the gate are highlighted in this way, mainly so you can see how closely packed the graves were.

If the living conditions were hard on all the newly free African Americans they were particularly brutal for children.  More than half the burials that have been identified in the cemetery are thought to be those of people under the age of 16.

But I was also struck by the way in which the design of the memorial emphasizes not just the historical significance of the site itself but also the subsequent historical disregard for the significance of the site, simply because it was an African American cemetery.  Over the years, a brickyard, road development and the building of the beltway bulldozed portions of the cemetery away with no one much caring.  Approximately 1700 burials are presumed to have taken place there; the site that remains includes a little over 500 graves.  On one edge of the site they have left exposed a portion of a large concrete slab where an office building once stood (attempting to remove it would have damaged too many more graves).  The main elements of the memorial, and a wall listing the names of all people known to have been buried there, stands atop another concrete slab foundation used to support a gas station.

A New Road

But if the memorial looks backward to a past of suffering, neglect, desecration and denigration, it also looks forward toward a more optimistic future where history is a resource for both personal discovery and national self-scrutiny.  The following isn’t a great photo (the light was kind of awkward, sliding in from the side across the bronze face) but this is a portion of the memorial wall.


A portion of the Freedmen’memorial wall which lists the names of all known burials at the site, the approximate age at time of death and, on the right, the person’s former owner, if known.

The most significant part of this image?  That track on the left, which is is on every one of the bronze panels.  The button is hard to make out, but it says “Living Descendant Found.” That little channel carved into the bronze is a gesture cast into the future.  Because this is a memorial that is designed to grow and change.  In the future, it says, we hope we will be able to find more living descendants of the people who were laid to rest here.

Quite unexpectedly, I found myself with tears in my eyes.  For one moment I felt that this memorial had provided me with some inkling of what a beautiful and terrible thing it would be to find the name of your ancestor there.

While I stood there several people walked by the gate.  A couple stopped, read the sign at the entrance and walked on.  No one else came in while I was there.  The only other person I saw was an African American woman leaving as I entered.  But as I stood there, struggling to get my bike glasses off so I could wipe away the tears, I was glad I was alone.  Because I am not African American, and there was no getting away from the fact that as a white person what I felt most powerfully there was shame.

And that isn’t a bad thing.

We spend a lot of our lives trying to dodge shame, to avoid feeling ashamed.  Trying not to feel ashamed for the terrible deeds of your ancestors is one of the major things fueling the rise of the racist right in the US.  But this, for me, is the power of a well-designed memorial.  They may speak differently to different people, but they speak eloquently and insistently.  There is no getting away from the fact that what the site itself represents and what was done to it subsequently are shameful.  Beyond what I’ve said here I can’t hope to know what this site would mean to a person of color today.  The site did, however, make me ask that question.  And it asked, in a quiet voice, for me to be open to shame.  Then it stepped back, and gave me space to be ashamed.

The Crossroads

In terms of what seem to be its design goals, the Freedmen Cemetery doesn’t quite hit its mark in all aspects.  In fact, in this one small site you can see a central tension in US memorial design, that between contemplative spaces and representative spaces.  Mainstream US culture is not, in general, a culture that is very tolerant of ambiguity.  Things need to be cut and dried so that people don’t have to “waste time” (i.e. time that could be better spent watchcng reality TV or browsing Zappos) figuring out what is going on.

The most famous example of this tension is the Vietnam memorial.  Researching this when I was an undergraduate was actually what got me into thinking about memorials in the first place.  Looking back now, I am astonished that the memorial wall was ever built.  Now, of course, it is one of the most visited (if not the most visited) memorial on the National Mall.  Back when the design was first unveiled there was a shit-storm.  Because the memorial was so unlike the “usual” which consisted, as I mentioned above, mainly of heroic statues.  Usually of men.  And horses.  So the Vietnam memorial spawned the alternative Vietnam memorial, something presumably more in line with the tastes of middle America, a conventional bronze statue of three soldiers.  A powerful vision in its own right, but utterly conventional in both its materials and its message of heroism.  Then this memorial spawned its counter-memorial, to those women who served in Vietnam.  Another bronze sculpture of human figures, speaking of quiet, stubborn heroism.  Very traditional.  Very American.

But Middle America proved to be a little less middlebrow than most people thought.  Nowadays most people walk by these conventional heroic sculptures with barely a glance, and it is that “ugly” black scar in the middle of the green mall that people flock to.  Because the sculptures are part of a tradition that wants to tell you what to think, and overloads that message with conventional symbols (I’m once again looking at you Nationnal WWII memorial) all of which have so many primary and secondary associations that they crowd out anything that isn’t the standard narrative.  But the Vietnam Memorial represents a different kind of memorial: one that doesn’t want to tell you what to think, so much as give you a space to think.  This is the same quality I find in the memorials I mentioned above.

The Freedmen Cemetery would like to be that kind of memorial, but it just can’t quite.  The designers just couldn’t resist the conventional bronze sculpture move.


“The Path of Thorns and Roses” by Mario Chiodo.

It is a stunning piece in many ways.  It captures a lot of emotional connections that you might make with the history of this place: struggle, agony, triumph.  And in another context, in another place, it would be a powerful statement.  So why is this a problem?  Consider this description from Chiodo’s website:

Mario’s passionate, spiraling depiction includes figurative representations of Oppression, Struggle, Sacrifice, Loss, Compassion, and Hope – the highest figure – holding the unbloomed “rose of freedom” as he stands on his tiptoes to avoid the thorns of oppression beneath him.

This is a sculpture with a message, an intent, it wants to tell you (unambiguously) what to think.  In fact, it is an overloaded message; the piece is screaming at the visitor to this quiet spot in a place where you should be able to encounter simply the ironic counterpoint of wind and traffic noise (that background is in many ways tied in with the site’s overall intent, I think).  At some point, the designers lost their nerve and weren’t sure that people would be able to figure out what to make of this spot if you didn’t tell them what to think.  Also, like the designers of the alternative Vietnam memorials, they were worried about what would happen if you didn’t provide people with a sculpture that offers a message that, despite its acknowledgement of oppression and struggle, is essentially a Hallmark moment: struggle overcomes adversity!


Closeup of Chioddo’s sculpture

The site would have been much more powerful without this sculpture.  What there would have been, instead, was simply the small structure, three walls, with gaps, holding the panels with the names.  Why would that have been more powerful?  Because as I looked back from the gate on my way out, trying mentally to block the sculpture from my view, what I saw then was a small stone building, about the size of a small house; something, in other words, very like the homespace of their own that so many fleeing African Americans sought during those years. . .and continued to seek.  The openings in the walls, the fact that there is no roof, testify to the fragility and vulnerability of that dream.  But the fact that it is of stone and bronze is a powerful indicator that the dream endures.  The presence of the sculpture detracts from all that, and distracts us from the most important fact of this site: that this small, vulnerable dream of home is built upon the foundations of an attempt to erase it.

I wish that the designers had in fact ditched the statues and just left the plinth on which it is situated, into which are carved these words from escaped slave Harriet Jacobs:



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