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WASHINGTON — After spending most of the summer crossing the National Mall and taking in the greatest hits of the nation’s capital, I was ready to explore a landmark slightly off the beaten path.
Of course, by off the beaten path, I mean the neo-Gothic style edifice just around the corner from where I’m living. With its imposing scaffolding-encased towers, the Washington National Cathedral stands at the “highest” point in the District of Columbia atop Mount St. Alban.
Early on a Sunday afternoon, I figured it was probably time that I take an actual tour. With its flying buttresses and vaulted arches, the nation’s second-largest cathedral is just as impressive as one would imagine.
The nave is filled with stunning stained glass windows that produce an array of colors which cascade off the panes, giving the images a divine-like appearance. The Space Window, a favorite among children, even contains a piece of rock brought back from the moon by the astronauts of Apollo 11.
Based on the iconography alone, it was easy to forget that I was in Washington, D.C. and not some ancient landmark of Europe. (Although, for the number of times our guide mentioned the word “gothic architecture,” I also could have thought I was touring a certain school in New Haven.)
Admiring the cathedral’s interior, I noticed a peculiar stained-glass window. While most of the windows displayed representations of biblical stories like Genesis or Revelation, this one was different.
Predominantly composed of glass shards of red and blue, this particular piece of stained glass was a depiction of the Civil War. Complete with a group of Union soldiers on one windowpane contrasted with a Confederate flag overlooking a pair of soldiers on the other, the two images hung above an inscription paying tribute to Confederate Generals Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson.
Although initially intrigued by the uniqueness of the art, I became more interested in the sign sitting in front of the cove. It explains the recent decision of a cathedral task force to remove the Confederate flag from the images and to replace them with plain glass, citing the flag’s connections to histories of racism and oppression.
In a response reminiscent of Harvard’s decision to retire the Law School’s seal, the window underscored that our university is not alone in grappling with legacies of slavery. Harvard Law School and the Washington National Cathedral (both only a short walk from places I’ve called home) also remind me of how close these dynamic debates over symbols and legacies are occurring to where I live.
As I admired how the flecks of light from the windows cast a pale blue glow on the limestone walls, I remembered that understanding history is more than simply touring a set of grand monuments and museums carefully cultivated for public consumption this summer.
It is also about questioning legacies, exploring complex narratives, and maybe taking the time to look through a window to the past.
Kenton K. Shimozaki ’19 is a Crimson news editor living in Mather House.
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