Trying to escape with the table’s centerpiece

Last week, I flew to Washington, D.C. to accept the National Press Foundation‘s Berryman Award for Editorial Cartoons. I’ll be honest: I was nervous about speaking before thousands of journalists, until the morning of the speech. My wife and daughter had never been to the Lincoln Memorial, so we set out for it early. When we emerged from the Metro, the wind was fierce and frigid, far colder than we’re used to in California. As we walked toward the Washington Monument, on our way to Lincoln, we came across the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History & Culture.

The last time I visited D.C., I came to give another talk at the National Book Festival with conservative cartoonist Mike Ramirez. That morning, President Obama gave the dedication speech for the museum, and it opened to the public, after a 100-year-long struggle to build it. I wished I was in attendance. I thought it would be years before I’d have a chance to visit.

Posing with my wife, and with a little future Berryman Winner

The waiting list is eternal, so we had no hope of entering. We just asked the guard if we could go to the gift shop. But she looked at my wife and our six month old baby standing there in the howling cold and decided we should be inside. “You don’t have tickets? I have two tickets for you. Go on in.”

I won’t describe what we witnessed in that museum. I’m sure you can find descriptions elsewhere, but I think it’s something that’s so powerful, and so personal, that it shouldn’t be spoiled. There is something in there that’s going to stop you in mid-step and make you feel more than you thought you would. And that something is different for everyone. For me, it was rounding a corner and finding myself standing just inches from an artifact I’ve seen before only in faded photos… something I assumed had long ago been lost to time… but here it was perfectly preserved. And its simple caption revealing the origin of the artifact was unexpected, to me, and included what may have been the most uplifting eight words I’d ever read.

But I will say this: there comes a point, after you’ve literally risen through the centuries of struggle, persecution, and contributions of slaves and their descendants, where there’s a reflection room. You sit by a fountain that rains down from the high ceiling and come to terms with everything you’ve just seen. …Or you try to.

Addressing the crowd at the NPF dinner

I’m the great great great grandson of slaves whose contributions to America were ignored and lost to history. And here I was in the nation’s capital, about to accept an award for my contribution to the national conversation. One of the least important realizations I experienced in that reflection room was that compared to everything I’d just seen, standing up before thousands of people and saying a few words was nothing at all.