Stone Mountain is a rock with a lot of racial baggage: Finding solutions

November 22, 2018

Should Germany erect statues of Adolf Hitler because it’s their “history”? Is their banning of the swastika “erasing history”?

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When I was in third grade at Atherton Elementary in Stone Mountain, Georgia, if I couldn’t immediately name the three Confederate heroes carved into the face of the mountain, I would get punched. Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, and Stonewall Jackson. We moved to Stone Mountain in 1972, after a year living in Boca Raton, Florida. But before that, my family lived in Cleveland, Ohio. I quickly learned that the Civil War didn’t end in 1865, and if there was one thing worse than a “yankee” it was a “damn yankee.” The refugees of the rust belt were the new carpetbaggers.

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I loved growing up in Stone Mountain. In the 1970s, it was just starting to transition from a rural southern town to a suburb of Atlanta. We got our milk from a dairy, fished in a pond, road horses, and played in endless tracks of woods that were quickly being cutdown to make way for new subdivisions. We had brand new schools (Woodridge Elementary and Redan High for me) and new grocery stores and even a new Hardee’s hamburger joint. But there were some old demons that caught a few of us damn yankees off guard.

Let freedom ring?

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I didn’t hear Martin Luther King’s 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech in school for probably the same reason that (unlike other students across the country) we weren’t encouraged the watch the groundbreaking 1977 miniseries Roots. There was a subtle message that black lives didn’t really matter and neither did their experiences in white America. I saw the speech on PBS one day (a habit I picked up during the Watergate hearings) and was dumbstruck. Amid the rightness and righteousness to King’s call for a “symphony of brotherhood,” was a shout out to my podunk town. “Let freedom ring from the curvaceous slopes of California. But not only that; let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia!” Woo!

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There was a reason MLK mentioned my town. Stone Mountain is the birthplace of the modern Ku Klux Klan. A methodist preacher named William J. Simmons saw the film The Birth of a Nation in 1915, an insanely racist epic that glorifies the Reconstruction-era Klan, and thought, “That looks like a good idea.” He assembled a group of like-minded white men, including a local quarry operator named Samual Venable, whose son, James Venable, would become the Imperial Wizard of the national KKK in the 1960s. Simmons, Venable, and 13 others, including 2 elderly members of the original Klan, climbed the mountain and lit a 16-foot cross and a new Klan (and a new Klan tradition) was born.

As a kid in Stone Mountain, it was well known that the Klan was still a presence. A good friend of mine in sixth grade’s father was in the Klan and would “delight” us with tales of nightriders who would keep the town white. There was no counter narrative about the horrors of lynchings, rapings, and sheer terror inflicted on black Americans under the Klan’s warped reign. Every Labor Day, the Klan marched through our little town before their annual rally on the Venables’ property. There was no Antifa to oppose them. The fall of 1980, my senior year in high school, as our student body experienced an increase in African-American kids, Klan flyers popped up on lockers. There was no response from the white administrators. The following fall a 23-year-old black army private named Lynn Jackson was found hanging from a tree in nearby Social Circle, Georgia. There were no marches. Everyone knew that we lived in Klan territory.

I carry great shame that as a young person I never spoke out against this insanity. The truth is I was told the Klan had my back against the “invasion” (that word should sound familiar) of black residents moving out from Atlanta, looking for a better life in the burbs. We were told they were bringing crime and lower property values. My northern-born parents would never use the N word, but I heard “jigaboo” more than once. I was conflicted but acquiescing to the Klan-view of the world was easier. I now wonder how hard it was for the black kids in my class to operate in the face of this normalized white supremacy. When one white kid did something positive, another would say, “Mighty white of you!” If you tried to reach out to a black student for friendship, you were called a “nigger-lover” (so you didn’t). I had a great black friend in my guitar class named Cheryl who turned me on to dub reggae and the very first rap records. I want to find her and beg her forgiveness for not being a clear voice against the daily micro aggressions she must have endured as a black kid in white Stone Mountain.

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Stone Mountain has changed dramatically. White flight accelerated in the 1980s and when I go back now it feels like aliens just rounded up all the Caucasians. They fled farther into the hills and complain about “what happened” to “their” town. (The truth is my old neighborhood is now a nice middle-class black neighborhood. Cars on blocks have been replaced by Mercedes and landscaped lawns.) My nearly all-white high school is nearly now all-black. My brother and I recently visited our elementary school to take some pictures and the black principle came out to confront us, probably worried that we were Aryan soldiers planting a bomb.

“Get over it!”

But Stone Mountain still has a race problem. It’s the mountain itself. Or at least the carving on it. When the Trump-hat wearing alt right was rallying in Charlottesville, Virginia last year, chanting, “You will not replace us! Jews will not replace us!” they were defending a statue of Robert E. Lee. We were moving forward in our national history and putting these vestiges of our dark past in museums where they belonged. I remember thinking, “Um, we’ve got a Confederate memorial the size of a mountain to deal with. What do we do about that?”

It doesn’t make much sense to blast Lee, Davis, and Jackson’s faces off the giant hunk of granite that is our mountain. There’s some hysteria coming from white folks who think that’s even possible. These are the same white folks who, in 2008, worried that a newly elected President Obama would ban the N word and force white people to pick cotton. But those three faces loom over an increasingly black part of the country, watching over black families who picnic where the Klan burned crosses.

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Many southern whites say, “Get over it. It’s history! Stop looking to be offended!” I’m guessing that German Christians don’t say that to German Jews. These southern whites must be willfully ignorant of the centuries of rape, torture, mutilation, murder, family separation, and endless bondage that was a historical fact of the regime Lee, Davis, and Jackson fought to preserve. “The Civil War wasn’t about slavery!” these whites claim. This is the biggest lie of all. The leaders of the Confederacy made it quite clear that they were quitting the United States of America over the issue of slavery. Georgia’s proclamation of secession, signed January 29, 1861, referenced slavery 35 times. Confederate president Jefferson Davis routinely cited Lincoln’s attempt to abolish slavery as the reason for the war (as did Lincoln himself). It’s an Orwellian rewrite by whites wishing to diminish the savage and divisive nature of slavery to try to claim the war was about “state’s rights” (to preserve slavery) or the “southern way of life” (built on slavery). This what you get when people think Gone With the Wind was a documentary.

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But I go back to the trauma. The experience of that black family having their picnic under the gaze of the Confederate “heroes” who defended lifetimes of torture for their ancestors. As Dr. Joy DeGruy writes about in her brilliant book, Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome: America’s Legacy of Enduring Injury and Healing, it is unrealistic to expect African-Americans to just “get over” the traumatizing effects of generational slavery when the reminders of that campaign of dehumanization are all around, from Confederate flags, to increasing hate crimes, to police brutality, to the simple micro-aggression by whites who deny that racism is still a problem. Black lives don’t matter. The fact that we are even having this conversation is proof.

I had a white student once tell me, “Racism ended in the 1960s. Black people are just complaining now.” I responded, “What day? There must have been a day that racism ended, so what day? I mean we should make that day a holiday! The day racism ended in America and black people just started complaining. What day was that so I can mark it on the calendar?” He didn’t say anything after that. If these white people (and they aren’t just in the South), bothered to ask an actual black person about the persistence of racism, their fragile picture of a “post-racial” America would crash.

Transforming a mountain

So what to do about Stone Mountain? Nobody’s going to blast off any faces. Half of the guys up on Mt. Rushmore owned slaves (Washington and Jefferson). Do they get blasted, too? These whites who worry that any of this is “erasing” history obviously don’t know what the fuck a book is. There are thousands of books on the Confederacy. But don’t worry, those three ghosts will be on that mountain long after we’re all gone.

My solution has always been to add to the carving. Leave Lee, Davis, and Jackson up there, but add Martin Luther King, Jr. to the mountain. He’s from Georgia and it was his “I Have a Dream” speech that put my little town on the map in a way the KKK only dreamed about. Maybe a larger MLK wagging is finger at LD&J or just looking down on them with pity. Racist rednecks can have their carving and African-American families can be reminded that progress happens. This country is not stuck in the past.

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I’ve been hanging out on a Facebook page called I Remember Stone Mountain When… It’s populated by those of us who grew up there and it’s mainly reminiscing about cruising the K-Mart parking lot or eating fried catfish at Rio Vista Restaurant. But bring up the issue of race and suddenly we’re back on James Veneble’s property with crosses burning. I’ve been called a “stupid liberal” more times than I care to count, just for asking people to acknowledge the truth about the carving and the pain it causes.

Amid all the yeehawing about “preserving our heritage” and my failed attempt to raise the issue of white privilege came the most sane rational post from a guy named Tom Malone;

May I invite you, gentlemen, to join me in an idea I’ve been developing over the past few years? To enhance Stone Mountain Park by making one of its missions to serve as a center for racial reconciliation. How? Not by removing anything, but rather by adding statues, historical markers, and a museum, etc. honoring and remembering the contributions, sacrifice, and suffering of the slaves who were also an integral part of the Confederacy. This way, the WHOLE story would be getting told, and we could all go there for honoring, reflecting, and reconciling.

Bam. There it is. Problem solved. The carving stays as a recognition of the horrific sins of the past and our dedication to right those wrongs. We desperately need a real national conversation on race and Stone Mountain, Georgia could be where this could happen. It’s not beyond the pale that Johnny Reb embraces the depth of his implicit bias in the shadow of Jefferson Davis. And it’s entirely possible that little black boys and little black girls may be able to transcend the trauma of racism from a mountaintop in Dekalb County where the KKK burned its first cross. That would be the realization of Dr. King’s dream. There have been incredible racial reconciliation projects in South Africa, Rawanda, and the former Yugoslavia that have brought real healing. We need this in America and we could start it in Stone Mountain.

It’s so funny when I hear white people blather about “heritage.” If you are a European-American, your heritage includes everything from Neanderthals to the Renaissance. The fact that you fixate on the disgusting eras of slavery and Jim Crow says an awful lot about your values. You know what is a part of your “southern heritage”? The civil rights movement! Where Americans put their bodies on the line to fight for justice and equality. Preserve that history. Be proud of that history.

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In 1997, Stone Mountain elected its first black mayor. Mayor Chuck Burris ended up moving into the house once owned by KKK wizard James Venable. To bring the point home, Burris put a freedom bell in the town square to celebrate the progress of MLK’s dream. That’s the Stone Mountain I love. I don’t have to wax nostalgically about fried catfish in the good old days. Stone Mountain’s good old days are straight ahead and I’m proud of where it could go. I have a dream, too.

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Are you helping or are you just acting like you’re helping? Performative allyship

December 8, 2017

When I agreed to be on a public panel on racism and white allies, I had no idea it would be such a learning experience for me. I thought I was on the stage to share my expertise with a packed room about “what works” and “lessons learned.” Instead, it became a lesson in how not to respond when called out in one of those not-so courageous conversations. “But I’ve spent my life fighting racism! Racist skinheads have attacked me!” In my mind, suddenly I was there to defend myself. Well, I got schooled. Welcome to the next chapter in getting it.

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Point number one: None of us are perfect. When I talk to white people about this work, I tell them you are going to mistakes so prepare yourself for it. Wrong words used, wrong inferences made, wrong facts stated. I never included the other part of that – How you should respond when you do make a mistake. It’s so easy to get defensive. “But I’m an ally! I don’t even have to be here!” And it’s easy to forget that white people can walk away from a cause that people of color are in every single day off their lives.

Point number two: I can’t be the only one who struggles with reconciling their intellectual self with their emotional self. How many liberal sexual harassers have said, “This is not who I am!” Well, for those of us who don’t live inside your head, it is who you are. But I get the feeling. My ideas about the world and my behavior don’t always match up. I see the world through a feminist lens but I can be sexist. I’m a committed anti-racist, but that doesn’t mean I’m immune from my own internalized racism. This “woke ally” still has a little boy from Stone Mountain, Georgia inside him, whispering in his ear. “Say it. It’s just a joke.”

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I’ve written about how that panel turned into a bit of a shit show when I felt like I was being attacked by a black activist. You can watch the video of the event here. (I can’t watch it. I know what mistakes I made.) The short version is that I got defensive and made it all about me instead of using the moment to unpack any harm I was doing. I should have said, “Thank you for expressing this. Could you please help me to understand what micro aggression I’m engaging in?” Instead I just laughed. How could I be acting racist? Then, afterwards, I turned to Twitter for some classic spleen venting. Then I wrote a blog about “Woe is me” and how hard it is to do this work. “Wahhhh! I should have become a stock broker. Don’t hurt my feelings! I worked for Jesse Jackson!” It was an honest expression of frustration but it missed an important point. This isn’t about me.

While some anti-racist activists probably just wrote me off at that point as a “clueless white person,” others reached out to me. I had coffee with Donna Maxey, the long-time organizer of Race Talks. These monthly conversations are vital work in undoing the harm of racism in our community and she is a true shero. She saw me responding from a place of desperation, about my current transition in life, and a need to be seen as bringing value to the world. Then three white activists invited me to a conversation about performing allyship as opposed to actually fighting racism and it was like a thousand light bulbs went off above my head. An hour can change your perspective.

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I’ve written about Queer Theory in this blog and the concept that we perform gender. As Judith Butler wrote, gender is something we do. Well, so is being an ally in liberation struggles. For some people it is just a performance, not a real commitment to the endgame. “Look at me, I’m performing anti-racism! I marched in a protest! Selfie!” And then they put a Black Lives Matter sign in front of their gentrified house that used to be the home of a family of black lives. I’ll admit it, that night at Race Talks for sure, some of my allyship was performative as hell.

We met at the library in downtown Portland for this summit. I think we were all nervous about how it would go. My previous willingness to be combative on the issue probably didn’t give them much hope. They graciously allowed me to record our talk for an upcoming episode of my Recovering Asshole podcast. Fortunately for them, I recognize that Randy Blazak’s worst enemy is Randy Blazak. I was there to listen with an open heart and not get my hackles up, which is more in line with my emotional training. Hackles.

The next hour was an enlightening conversation about mainstream frameworks of response verses true anti-racist responses. Not only did I recognize the responses of others, I recognized some of my own. How have I responded when called out on my own racism? This is an example from Dr. Robin DiAngelo’s work on white fragility.

Screen Shot 2017-12-07 at 10.52.43 PMThis is just a piece of it (the whole thing is here), but each step of the process is about turning off one’s ego and being open to growth. This is an issue that’s always been challenging for me. Because of my own childhood story, I immediately go into defensive mode and the first response is to battle. Sitting quietly with my feelings before responding has never been a default position. Fighting has. So I understand how I could have done harm by turning the exchange at Race Talks into a sparring match instead of an opportunity for growth. I thought the packed room wasn’t there to hear these two guys go at it. In reality, they could have learned a lot about how to be a good ally if I had provided a good example of how to actually navigate those uncomfortable situations.

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I see this same response from the conservatives in my circle. If they get called out for their racism, they immediately shut down, of talk about their “black friend,” or say they are being misconstrued, instead of just listening. They are afraid to say, “I might be wrong,” or “Help me to see your point.” Everything just ends. And white liberals do the same damn thing. “You are judging me! Look at my liberal credentials! I have a blog!” Shut up and listen.

There are some real red flags that you’re a performer and not a true ally. When you’re with bunch of white people and somebody says something racist. If you don’t say something, you might be a performer. If you get miffed because nobody said “thank you” for your contribution to the cause, you might be a performer. And you’re not willing to take a back seat and just listen, you might be a performer. If posting an anti-racist statement on Facebook is about as a big a risk you are willing to take fight racism, you might be a performer.

During our talk, one of the white allies talked about how important my voice was on this issue because I have such a large audience that listens to me, through my public speaking, my podcast, and this blog. One of the other folks there pointed out how I puffed up when that was being said. It is true. I’m bit of a performer and it is good to get recognition for trying to be part of the solution to all this. But we don’t do it for the recognition. We do it because it needs to be done. It’s not a show starring me. It’s the hard work of dismantling oppression. It’s what needs to be done for us to be truly free.

I think at each step of our lives we have the tendency to think we are fully formed. When I graduated from college at 21, I thought I had it all figured out. I would never know more  about how things worked than I did on May 13, 1985. That seems laughable now. I continue to learn the importance of listening instead of just responding. Listening and hearing. It applies to my role as a husband, a parent, a friend, and an ally in the struggle to bring us out of the darkness. I am but one, but we are many.