DECEMBER 3, 2020
MAN ALMIGHTY, my teammate exclaimed during a two-on-two basketball game in the late ’80s at Morris Brandon Elementary School in Atlanta. I think he was trying not to take the Lord’s name in vain, but our opponents took it differently. They interrupted the game to ask a classic Southern question: if we died that night, where we would spend eternity?
If, during that pickup Jesus-moment, a wayward jump shot had missed its target, bounded out into the street, and rolled down the hill on Howell Mill Road, it likely would have come to rest along the curb where the road bottoms out in front of a neoclassical home built by the Ku Klux Klan.
The house radiates placid ease and mint-julep-scented leisure as if it were custom-built for Southern Living. Its legacy has been secured by a listing on the National Register of Historic Places for its architectural merit, which means its actual history should continue to be politely ignored.
Mary Elizabeth Tyler lived there for only three years in the early 1920s, but in that span she helped to rebuild the most notorious organization in American history. Along with her business partner and occasional paramour, Edward Young Clarke, Tyler ran the Propagation Department of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. In her first year, she had already begun to rake it in, pocketing $2.50 of every $10 for each initiation fee for new recruits to the Klan, which were plentiful.
Not once in my time in Atlanta did I ever hear anyone talk about this house, point it out, flag its hidden history. I’m not sure how many people even knew then about its Klan association. I’m not sure how many know now. If they did, it was probably mentioned in the same hushed tones that some local whites also used for the word “Black.”
The Klan existed then in an imaginary elsewhere: I did not yet know of its associations with Stone Mountain, where it was revived in 1915, but even if I had it would have helped to locate the Klan comfortably “out there” in the uncultured sticks. And in an elsewhile: the KKK seemed like a string of dead letters, still menacing in their angularity but more a threat in movies than in daily life.
It certainly never occurred to me then that the Ku Klux Klan — during its second wind from 1915 to the mid-1920s — was reborn not in the hinterlands of Atlanta but at its posh and manicured heart: not in Stone Mountain but in Buckhead. My neighborhood.
If, after that game in which I did not really question my eternal destiny, I went home and watched something on television that night, I was not likely to have been historically burdened by it. Mainstream American television asked very little of us in the late 1980s. Ten years earlier, American TV had shown at least mild historical curiosity, as the shadow of the Korean and Vietnam Wars still fell across after-dinner story lines. M*A*S*H was wildly popular, and its finale is still the single most watched television episode in history. Even The A-Team featured a crew of crime-fighting vigilantes who had been members of the same “crack commando unit” in Vietnam.
But by the time I was being asked to consider my eternal future in the middle of a basketball game, even idealized and romanticized history wasn’t must-see TV anymore. The primetime lineup was suddenly bereft of automotive dramatis personae like The A-Team’s tricked-out black GMC van with a bitchin’ red racing stripe climaxing in a totally pointless spoiler, or Miami Vice’s characteristically un-subtle Ferrari Testarossa. For some reason, tastes had shifted away from a long and venerable legacy of car-driven TV drivel to cozily homebound domestic fare with occasional flashes of real humanity like Family Ties and Dallas, and America soothed what was left of its addled conscience about racial inequality in front of a nightly menu of almost entirely white and almost entirely happy families.
Roots was 10 years ago. Racism was history, man. We had The Cosby Show.
It’s possible that there is a relationship between the prominence of cars onscreen and an interest in history. American cars have always been a locus of cultural nostalgia, vehicles for easy-chair recollection that have tended to allow us to fantasize about a past that did not really exist. But that may have been better than indifference: even if automobiles served as proxies for actual history, they were at least a means to the past, however bent by sentimentalism and wish-fulfilment. The Cosby Show didn’t have a car.
I was 10 the year Knight Rider premiered. Earlier that winter, laid under with a cold, I watched through the living room window while my brother and neighborhood kids frolicked in the greatest snow event in the city’s history. “SnowJam 1982” was a bona fide weather apocalypse in Atlanta terms, and a disastrous time for a kid to be on the disabled list, but for me it was a rare stint spent in a room furnished with formal couches and chairs strategically positioned to hide the yellow stains in the carpet contributed by our young puppy. Apart from Christmas mornings, we rarely ventured into that room. We watched TV in the den.
Like most structures of a certain age in Atlanta, that house is gone now, as is the knotty-pine-paneled den with the black vinyl loungers where I perched myself on an oversized pillow in front of the cathode-ray tube television set. When it debuted in September, Knight Rider was the coolest thing my brother and I had ever seen on television. Centered around an impossibly cool Pontiac Trans Am with a British accent, it seemed to be the heir-apparent to the legacy of The Dukes of Hazzard, the archetype of the Badass-American-Car-Centered-TV Show.
By the first season of Knight Rider, Dukes was entering the winter of its years, and unable to keep pace with technologically sophisticated carlust. The precipitating cause was a contractual dispute that led to the replacement of Bo and Luke Duke with the eminently forgettable Coy and Vance. But even when original cast members Tom Wopat and John Schneider returned to set for season five, the die was already cast. For all its 383-cubic-inch V8, 330-horsepower virility and traffic-cone orange impudence, the General Lee could not really compete with a black Trans Am with a brain. KITT felt like a business-casual reprise of The Bandit’s 1977 Trans Am, but it could talk, and drive itself. Suck it, Lee.
The opening title sequence — KITT barreling camera-ward across salt flats — was the most interesting thing about Knight Rider. The pulsing electronic theme song was a notable pivot away from Waylon Jennings’s iconic theme for Dukes and also a harbinger of everything that was about to go wrong with country music. When the voice-over introduced Knight Rider as “a shadowy flight into the dangerous world of a man who does not exist,” the anti-authoritarian Robin Hood motif was in the same spirit as but considerably heavier than “just a good ol’ boys, never meanin’ no harm.”
The Confederate imagery of the rebel flag and the name of General Lee were accepted in 1982 as part of the white cultural furniture of the South. Like the dog-pee-stained carpet in our family living room, it wasn’t worth it to think too much about it. Although it might — rightly — shock the cultural influencers of today, good ol’ boys straightening the curves in a ’69 Dodge emblazoned with a roof-top rebel flag seemed cool at the time. Making our way, the only way we knew how.
And certainly the figure of Michael Knight (played by a consummately white David Hasselhoff) did nothing to evoke suburban anxieties, but that a show named Knight Rider did not evoke images of hooded Klansmen roaming the South in search of African Americans to intimidate, kill, or purge is indicative of just how immune my generation of privileged white kids had become to the language and mythology of the Confederacy.
There are other more consequential rooms of my own and my city’s memory that have been rarely, if ever, visited — similarly furnished with fixtures intended to dress up a city’s history in bright colors with slogans laid about the cultural floor to hide the stains. I had grown up with deep familial roots in “the city too busy to hate,” trained by my education in private school to look ahead to the future more than at the past, and by my church to dwell in the eschaton more than in the present age, much less in what Thomas Wolfe called “the brown murk of the past.”
Which may have something to do with my preoccupation with cars then: always moving forward, sometimes dangerously, they were avatars of American optimism, steel-and-rubber emblems of possibility and engines of progress. And Atlanta was then, and is still, pathologically obsessed with them. Even had I known that such cultural sub-basements existed, I doubt I would have had the sense or enough confidence to descend into their musty shades in search of historical knowledge.
If we who were young and white in the 1980s could watch The Dukes of Hazzard and not think twice about the rebel flag on the roof of the General Lee — nor of the problems inherent in naming a car the General Lee — we could also easily bypass the racial politics of the flag as they were playing out just to the north in all-white Forsyth County. A series of demonstrations beginning with a march in celebration of Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday in January 1987 led to a much larger march the following week, drawing out thousands of protestors and counterprotestors. Confederate flags flew, things turned ugly, and it was all televised.
Forsyth had been all-white since 1912, when two white women were allegedly raped in the county. The ensuing fallout followed a familiar script. The crimes were pinned on local Black men. While the sheriff was mysteriously away, a white lynch mob stormed the jail where three of the suspects were being detained, murdered one of them in their cell, and dragged his body to hang from a lamppost in the town square that does not exist anymore. In the following months, white-hooded Night Riders conducted a racial cleansing of the county, forcing out virtually all of Forsyth’s Black residents.
In early 1987, the nightly liturgy of dinner followed by the NBC Nightly News was acted out in red, white, and blue as defenders of Forsyth and of “high morals” flew Confederate battle flags — hundreds of them — to scare African Americans out of town. It became impossible to maintain the illusion that the flag represented “heritage” — it was manifestly a tool of racial oppression and violence, and you didn’t have to have graduated high school yet to have figured that one out.
The saga in Forsyth could have been an unprecedented teaching moment, an opportunity for us white kids to learn about how the legacy of white supremacy was continuing to act itself out just a few miles away from Atlanta. But it didn’t. This semi-disclosure represented a road not taken — while I could tuck away a simple sense that the flags were designed to menace, it would be another 30 years before I would come to seriously question the meanings of those flags. Local and national Black leaders I had thenceforth been taught to regard as nonessential had been trying to get our attention for years, but I wasn’t listening. The Forsyth moment passed and left me, at least, believing that white supremacy was a bloodsport for fanatical rednecks and racists out there in the boonies.
Despite an expensive undergraduate education and two graduate degrees, I held this assumption until an embarrassingly late age, when the language of white supremacy began to re-enter the cultural conversation. In truth it had never really left; it simply had become the province of authors I was trained — through a combination of formal education and my own self-incurred delusion — to think of as “Black thinkers” and writers, residents of a neighborhood of American intellectual life I had been given little reason to wander into. I recall a moment in the 1980s when, driving with my father en route to a football game in Athens, we stopped in traffic in the town center of Jefferson, Georgia. Lining both sides of the street were hooded Klansmen, passing out flyers for some rally or something. We passed through in silence, did not make eye contact, did not take a flyer. I rode on, still thinking that white supremacy meant the Klan, and surely that had nothing to do with me.
Perhaps it was an ignore-it-and-it-will-go-away sort of moment, but the Klan didn’t really go away, of course. Even if it had, white supremacy would still be with us. In any case, “ignore and it will go away” is terrible advice, and especially when “it” is America’s not-so-secret love affair with white supremacy.
The one thing that is guaranteed never to go away no matter how much you ignore it is your own ignorance. Which may explain why I and some of my high school friends could lounge on a summer evening in the late 1980s on the grassy esplanade spreading out from the foot of Stone Mountain like the infinite goodness of God, never once giving much of a thought to where we were. On folding chairs and blankets (the girls could indulge in a luxury forbidden them on our high school campus: laying fully horizontally on the grass), with a cooler full of non-adult beverages, we took in an offering of patriotic and family-friendly songs designed to warm the hearts of Georgians for the Peach State. Stone Mountain communicated ease: it was a Disneyesque resort of a kind, a mountain with an undemanding, handrail-assisted climb to the top, and the site of an almost impossible-to-explain extravaganza on balmy summer nights: the Lasershow.
Lasers were all the rage in the 1980s. Movies and TV shows — Star Wars, Tron, Battlestar Galactica — employed them with feverish delight. I roller-skated among swirls of them, synchronized with ’80s music, at Jellybeans, “the rockin’ rollerina on Roswell Road.” The Reagan administration dreamed up a plan for shooting down incoming Soviet missiles with lasers. And in 1984, Chrysler introduced an “executive personal luxury coupe” named after one. So who wouldn’t find beguiling the prospect of sitting out of an evening to a whole show of laser beams projected on the side of a mass of solid granite?
I don’t remember the main body of the Lasershow at Stone Mountain, but it is impossible to forget the climax: the laser-generated outlines of the three Confederate heroes whose horse-mounted likenesses are carved permanently into the face of the mountain. As loudspeakers blast Elvis Presley’s “An American Trilogy” — an emblematic medley in which irreconcilable American myths are put together in the same song and asked to play nice with one another — Robert E. Lee and then Jefferson Davis and Stonewall Jackson seem to take flight: their horses slowly begin to trot in mid-air and, swords raised, they take off for battle at a determined gallop. In a mild — if sentimentalized and slightly begrudging — gesture to the hell of war, battle scenes follow, at the conclusion of which a not particularly defeated-looking Lee raises his sword once more, only to bring its blade crashing down on his thigh. The broken sword falls to the ground, and the image of the fractured blade transforms into a map of the reunited nation, whereupon Lee resumes his stony pose for all eternity. The grand finale of the entire spectacle is the obligatory blaring of Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the U.S.A.,” which serves to signify the symbolic redemption of the Confederate “struggle” as ultimately a kind of sacrifice to the American ideals of liberty, justice, and cheesy country music.
It was a clever way of subsuming what I did not know then to call The Lost Cause into a story of noble sacrifice, the altruistic yielding of sectional interests to the greater cause of national union. The Rebels took one on the chin for the team. In retrospect, I don’t think it occurred to any of us to talk about just how damn weird all of this was. One fact that certainly never registered at the time was that Stone Mountain was a gargantuan monument to one way of misremembering history, the biggest and most aggressive Confederate monument in the country.
As I leaned back into the warm grass of the esplanade to the sound of Alabama’s “Dixieland Delight,” my heart strangely warmed, it never once crossed my mind that my evening of light entertainment was unfolding beneath the very site where the Ku Klux Klan reinvented itself in 1915, that not quite 75 years earlier, the first light show at Stone Mountain consisted of a 16-foot burning cross.
I listened to King’s “I Have a Dream” speech on cassette tapes countless times in my adolescence, and felt myself moved by the idealism of King’s vision — but moved in an abstract way, perhaps, since I never made the connection then between the lofty Christian nobility of King’s soul-jarring calls for justice and the material realities of where I lived. Unaware then of the resonances of Stone Mountain as a holy site for white supremacists and Lost Causers, I didn’t think to notice the deliberate power of King’s decision to mention it on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial at the March on Washington in 1963, didn’t consider how the power of that moment connected to a specific place I was probably then blithely enjoying seeing lit up with laser beams. But being moved by King’s speeches and sermons is no great achievement; anyone can do it. King’s greatest moments in the pulpit or on the dais had the power to effect in me a movement of the heart, maybe, but not yet a personal turning of memory. That would come later.
The only noteworthy feature of the carving that struck me then was how unfinished it so obviously was, the rather lazy pile of cut stone fragments at the base of the mountain where the reflecting pool was supposed to be suggesting some sudden arrest of effort. The horses remain half-finished, the whole thing a fairly crude and violent imposition of human artifice and will-to-power onto the largest mass of exposed solid granite on planet earth. It looked even then like a meticulous scar, the product of millions of small, surgical hammer strikes enacted by some interior principle of action I did not know how to name. On the most charitable reading, the Lasershow could be thought of as an elaborate effort to make the most out of an irreparable wound of nature; and insofar as anyone fell for the high-tech trompe-l’oeil it was at the cost of being prevented from looking too closely at the human scars the monument is not very interested in.
Only much later, would I start to look again at the monuments to the Lost Cause that had become like a tasteless fungus in the cultural drinking water — it was there, and terribly bad for everyone who consumed it, but most of us white folks just took it for granted or ignored it or weren’t even aware it was there, or what it was doing to us. All of which is deliciously ironic, given that I voluntarily chose to subject myself to a fabulously tacky display on the biggest Confederate monument in the world.
Stone Mountain has been there for millions of years, but it wasn’t until 1915 that it got its close-up, thanks to Hollywood. Following the blockbuster premiere of D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation that year, Mrs. E. Dorothy Blount Lamar, president of the Georgia division of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, praised Griffith as “a friend to the truth about those days of reconstruction.”
Birth of a Nation was, she said, a “truthful portrayal of the sorrows of those times, it has done a magnificent work for us in setting the justice of our attitued [sic] toward our troubles at that period before an uninformed north.” Lamar exhorted all the UDC faithful to “call for it insistently,” to get out and see the film, to persuade their local theater operators to screen it. In the same speech, Lamar reported with great excitement the “unbounded enthusiasm of the world-famous sculptor, Gustav Borglum,” for his plans for the Confederate memorial at Stone Mountain, which Lamar called a “wonderful phenomenon” to memorialize “Our Cause.” A week later, The Atlanta Constitution ran a two-page spread in its Sunday edition, featuring praise for the film from around the country. On the front page of the same issue, a small notice reported:
Impressive services of the past week were those conducted on the night of Thanksgiving at the top of Stone Mountain. The exercises were held by fifteen klansmen who gathered at the behest of their chieftain, W. J. Simmons, and marked the foundation of the invisible empire, Knights of the Ku Klux Klan.
The Klan 2.0 repaid Hollywood’s blessing by borrowing the act of burning a cross (used by Griffith for the film) for the first time on Stone Mountain. The film finally made its debut in Atlanta on December 6, two days after the state of Georgia issued an official charter to the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. At the very same time, The Constitution reported a wave of arson attacks by marauding “night riders” in Cherokee County north of the city that led African American residents to flee the county, much as they had done following the racial cleansing of neighboring Forsyth County in 1912.
The convergence of these historical episodes is hardly a coincidence; on the contrary, they mark milestones in the authorization of the Lost Cause version of history, the state seal of approval on a reinvigorated white supremacist regime and a mythological history to support it. By the end of a tumultuous 1915, with Leo Frank lynched, the Stone Mountain memorial underway, and the Klan restored, a blockbuster film celebrating Negro decadence and white virtue was just the thing white Atlanta needed to restore and reinvigorate its faith in the righteousness of its own “cause.”
Even if I had become aware at a younger age of Stone Mountain’s entanglements with the Klan, it would still have been easy to think of white supremacy at a comfortable distance. Stone Mountain was way the hell out there, in another county, not yet absorbed into the amnesic Atlanta that was swallowing us all.
By the curious civil liturgy of the Lasershow, the world’s most obnoxious Confederate monument was made to appear banal — not even really a Confederate monument at all, so much so that we could lounge before three outsize Rebel superstars and not bat an eye. The carving had the air of antiquity, and like many such monuments, disguises its own history. While the initial work on the monument began in 1923, it lay dormant for 40 years until it was revived in 1964 at the height of the Civil Rights movement and at the behest of Marvin Griffin, the segregationist governor of Georgia from 1955–’59, who never made any bones about his opposition to Brown v. Board’s federally mandated integration of public schools.
I had also assumed that the state flag had always had an embedded Confederate flag. You just assumed that because it was there, it had always been there. Only later did I learn it had been incorporated in 1956, two years after Brown. One of the sponsors of the bill in the Georgia State Senate was named Jefferson Lee Davis.
In my youth, the little park that now marks the center of Buckhead was very different from the epicenter of a new urbanist explosion that it is today. Like many locales in Atlanta, it has a short memory. Bagley Park in the center of Buckhead, the Klan’s headquarters, had once been the site of an African American settlement that was eventually bought out by Fulton County to create the diamonds where I played Little League baseball until the sixth grade.
There were still gravestones there, but I never asked about them or wandered among them. And no one I knew could ever explain how Buckhead had gotten its name to begin with. In the 1980s the only actual image of a buck head visible anywhere in the area was atop the marquee for the Buckhead Cinema whose message was unchanging for decades: “ADULT DOUBLE FEATURE.”
In front of the nearby Cotton Exchange on Roswell Road, a local gray-haired eccentric known as The Birdman, in light blue short-sleeved Oxford shirt, horn-rimmed glasses, and khakis, regularly rode his bicycle, flapping his arms up and down. The Birdman is long dead, but the Cotton Exchange has survived a frenzy for destruction that has gone on for decades in Atlanta. When it was first built in the 1920s, it was used to manufacture robes and gowns for the Ku Klux Klan, and was the source of a good deal of wealth for Mary Elizabeth Tyler and Imperial Wizard William J. Simmons. I passed it hundreds of times on the way to Henri’s Bakery on Irby for turkey on rye before realizing what it was. The original Henri’s has been replaced — like almost every other historic structure in Atlanta, it seems — by a chic new mixed-use development, but the Cotton Exchange is somehow still standing. It is historic, but few really seem to know why.
South on Peachtree Road a mile or so, there is even less of a trace of what once marked the corner of Peachtree and E. Wesley. About the same time Mary Elizabeth Tyler lived in her house, the massive Greek revival mansion that stood on the corner served as the headquarters of the Klan’s local and national operations. Simmons used it as a Klan showhome, and planned for the European-style garden sculptures of famous Night Riders — and one of himself. The headquarters of the trenchantly anti-Catholic Klan was purchased in 1936 by the Roman Catholic diocese of Atlanta for the construction of a new cathedral dedicated to Christ the King. There are no markers to what Atlanta’s history was at these sites, but there are also no markers to what it might have become at the corner of Collier Road and Howell Mill.
What is now a city green spot named Ellsworth Park straddling either side of Peachtree Creek was going to have been the campus of the Klan-sponsored University of America. The planned curriculum would require students to take a course in the Bible, and another on the Constitution. Its secretary and general manager, “General” Nathan Bedford Forrest II — grandson of the Confederate general — laid out the aims of the school:
We will teach that this is a white man’s country, so designed by those who laid its foundations and that it must be so maintained by those to whom it has come as a precious heritage, in all that is entailed as privilege and as responsibility. […] We will teach the whole American doctrine in contrast with the doctrines of other countries and races, other kinds and creeds, and in such a way as to convince the student that it is better to be a genuine white Protestant American citizen than to be anything or anybody else anywhere on all the earth.
That wasn’t all. “We will have a university in Atlanta that will compare favorably with Harvard, Yale, Princeton, or any other of the big schools of the east,” Imperial Wizard Simmons claimed. Today at the corner of Collier and Howell Mill there is no visible evidence of what might have become of this place. It could easily have happened, but it did not — not because of external pressure but because of a congenital habit of corruption and an unprecedented ability to talk a big game but fail to deliver.
The demise of the Klan in Atlanta in 1923 was not due to federal investigation or massive NIMBY resistance but to internal mismanagement and chronic corruption. Its leaders were vicious white supremacists, but they were also opportunistic charlatans who saw an opportunity to spread their message in a fraudulent and lucrative fashion. While Stone Mountain is a convenient location to which to outsource Atlanta’s Confederate and Lost Cause legacy, it’s still there in Buckhead if you know where to look.
In recent years, it seems the hellhound on the trail has been catching up with Atlanta: while the city remains the most prosperous, diverse, and powerful city in the South, the hold of the Lost Cause narrative on local identity has diminished. But vestiges still cling to the feet of the myth: four plaques erected in 1920 describing, in classically Lost Cause terms, the “Siege of Atlanta” still stand outside the main entrance of the state capitol building where, for two days 100 years later, the body of John Lewis lay in state in the rotunda.
The incongruity of the moment that was hard to miss: Lewis, a lifelong footsoldier for voting rights and full citizenship for African Americans, surrounded by the iconography of the opposition, a veritable portrait and statuary gallery of onlooking, now mute secessionists, slaveholders, segregationists, and white supremacists: Alexander H. Stephens, John Brown Gordon, Robert E. Lee, Benjamin H. Hill, Gene Talmadge, Thomas E. Watson, Marvin Griffin, Lester Maddox. Most silent of all, and curiously missing on the day of Lewis’s funeral: the portrait of my distant cousin, Governor Allen Daniel Candler. In the spot where it should be is a bare wall, a disencumbered picture hanger.
Allen was the pee-stained living room of my family, a chamber of collective memory visited so infrequently and so habitually kept dark that eventually no one could recall what was in there. Whatever the memory of Allen Candler had been at one time, a hundred years later, the darkness of family ignorance had overcome it.
By the time I really began to learn about him, he had become all but forgotten about in our branch of family lore. He was unknown to me for most of my life until a few years ago, when a single flicker of light in the form of a friend’s casual mention of a book about the lynching of Sam Hose began to dispel the darkness, and gradually illuminate the long-unlit corners of Allen’s history and legacy to Georgia, and to me. By the time my eyes had adjusted, I had learned that Allen had been governor during the most notorious lynching in the state’s history. He had done nothing to prevent it, and blamed the episode on Blacks. His administration oversaw the implementation of Plessy v. Ferguson’s “separate but equal” policy on race. Despite the direct pleas of W. E. B. Du Bois made to him in the governor’s mansion on Peachtree Street, Candler did nothing to prevent the state’s segregation of passenger rail cars. His chief political legacy had been the establishment of the white-only Democratic primary system, a feature of Georgia electoral politics until 1944.
I never had to be troubled by his memory. Perhaps some cruel logic left him out precisely because it was understood that my knowing about his white supremacy would have done nothing to change the system of privilege by which I have come to benefit from his political machinations.
One of the ways I’ve come to think about white privilege is in terms of the stories that you can get on without: stories about the world, yourself, your family, your city, the past. If you are a person of color, these are stories you need simply to achieve daily existence. For example: The story of Trayvon Martin or Eric Garner or George Floyd or Breonna Taylor — to say nothing of Emmett Till or Medgar Evers or Jimmie Lee Jackson — is a cautionary tale for the purposes of instructing the young and reminding the old that none of your accomplishments nor even your inborn dignity as a human being will count for anything if some representative of the white world decides one afternoon that you are a threat to them. Parents of Black children tell them the stories of Trayvon and Emmett because they know that their child’s name could be the next one added to the long list of names of the victims of white brutality, a list they must keep alive for themselves because the state will certainly not do it on their behalf.
Black Atlantans probably are far more likely to know this history than I am. White privilege means there are stories you do not have to be burdened by, neighborhoods of the imagination you think you can casually avoid without damage to your soul. My life as a white person could have turned out differently if I had learned to inhabit a different narrative geography, to be shaped by the practice of alienating mental spaces. But I didn’t have to.
My son Charlie is 10 that summer. Lately he and his three brothers have been obsessed with the films of the great Japanese animator, Hayao Miyazaki, whose masterful films often deal with the hidden, and even frightful beauty of nature, and the inveterate human will to dominate and destroy it and one another. I only discovered Miyazaki later in life, so we’ve gotten into his work together, as a family. We have all grown up with him at the same time.
Charlie and I are headed from Asheville to Atlanta in a Honda minivan. I want to show him some of the places I love, for no other reason than that I hope he will love them, too: Henri’s Bakery for turkey on rye; the subdivision that used to be my grandparents’ house; the Morris Brandon basketball court. We will take breakfast at the Silver Skillet, ride the streetcar down Auburn Avenue, stop at Ebenezer Baptist, the Royal Peacock. We’re also going to see some of the homes built by Candlers of the segregationist era, mainly on Ponce de Leon, the park-lined boulevard that marked the frontier between Black and White Atlanta. The same street on the white side has one name, and another on the Black side. My great-great-grandfather lived on that boundary at the corner of Ponce and Briarcliff, which becomes Moreland Avenue. His house is long gone, but we will go look for it anyway.
It is worth asking why any of this stuff matters, if at all. Maybe I am interested in family history; maybe I am seeking some place to anchor my own memories, some small plot of earth to which to bind my own wayfaring self. It could be that I am simply trying to manufacture a history I do not really possess, a surrogate past that I might lean on, that might hold steady for just a while longer. The house I grew up in is all gone now, and I have little to return to in the way of a site that still holds a memory of self should I forget. Maybe that’s what I am looking for on Ponce. I don’t know.
There is something nonsensical in all this, in my desire to give my children a sense of connection to a place where they have never lived, to cultivate in them an attachment to a space inhabited by their forebears they would never have heard about were it not for a random set of coincidences in my own life. It risks being an artificial, enforced attachment and not a real, organic one. But at bottom I just want them to be less naïve than I was, less ignorant than I am. To have a history we can grow up with together. To give them some sign that boundless curiosity will always be met with an ever-greater mystery, that as much as you think you know there is always an infinitely greater knowledge that you do not possess. That as long as you search the grounds of the world for some hint of yourself, you will never fully find it. That you will ever remain a mystery to yourself. That every seeking and finding only prompts more seeking; and that you may often find what you did not seek, and that may be the thing you needed the most.
I have given Charlie a Nikon F3 made about the same time as Knight Rider, loaded with Ilford HP5 Plus black-and-white film for the weekend. I tell him to be discriminating with his use of film. It’s not like taking pictures with a cell phone, I tell him. You have to be patient, I say, secretly hoping he shoots up a whole roll because he loves the feel of it — the weight of it, the vibrations in the hand from the mechanical click of the shutter — and has to exercise restraint because he doesn’t want to stop.
Gainesville proclaims itself “The Poultry Capital of the World.” Local hero and global chicken magnate Jesse Jewell (1902–’75) revolutionized the industry, and his company employed many people in north Georgia. Just on the edge of the town center, a monument to the city’s claim to fame rises 30 feet or so over Poultry Park. It is known as the “Chicken Monument,” which makes sense in view of the bronze rooster that tops the obelisk. But it is less a monument to the gallant bird — or the fact that more foods are compared to the taste of chicken than any other food — than a tribute to the ability efficiently to slaughter and process chickens en masse. Gainesville may or may not still be the world’s chicken capital, but it is home to possibly the world’s most American monument.
It’s more than a little ridiculous, but we didn’t come here to see a chicken. Down the road a piece is the real goal: the Alta Vista Cemetery. It is getting late in the day: the golden hour of late evening is just beginning. The sky relaxes a bit from its usual late-August gray and returns to a marine sort of blue in which cottony thunderheads show off. One, in the distance, is mildly threatening. Its dark underside seems to ride on a band of golden sky.
One monument in the middle of the burial ground sticks out, but it is not what we came here for either. It is the final resting place of Confederate General James Longstreet. This gravestone mentions only Longstreet’s life up until the end of the Civil War in 1865. He lived another 39 years, but you wouldn’t know it from this site because he enjoys a conflicted legacy. Beloved by many Confederates and their sympathizers for his military leadership in the Army of Northern Virginia, he is regarded by many of the same as a traitor for allying with the Republican Party during Reconstruction. In 1874, after the election of Republican William Kellogg as governor of Louisiana, members of the Crescent City White League, a white terrorist organization, stormed the US Customs House in New Orleans in an attempted coup of the state government. Longstreet led a multiracial detachment of the Metropolitan Police against the White League in the ensuing “Battle of Liberty Place.” He is not on Stone Mountain.
Charlie stands with the Nikon in front of the grave of Governor Allen Daniel Candler, and shoots. The last rays of daylight fall across the name on the tombstone. Unlike me at his age, Charlie knows that name. When the negatives come back a few weeks later, I realize what I already knew. He’s a natural. He’s got the eye, the patience, the vision. The scene is so dramatically colored that it feels like a sign that we have arrived at our journey’s end. But we have a ways to go yet.
On the road back to Atlanta, I-85 is inescapable. Outside Charlie’s window, an enormous cumulonimbus, backlit by the lowering sun, against a gradient sky from cerulean to amber. In a truly sane universe, everyone would be stopping in the middle of the eight-lane highway to take in the undeserved beauty of a fire-ringed cloud at dusk. It appears hand-drawn, painted on the back of the sky.
It looks like a Miyazaki, Charlie says.
It’s tempting to stop. But what can you do? Make your way, the only way you know how. You can’t hold on to the moment. You make some sacrifices, give yourself over to the mad tide of high-speed efficiency. It only goes in one direction. I have to keep my eyes on the road.
Charlie stares out the window at the cloud. Keep looking, I say to him, hoping that he will see what I cannot.