In two road trips taken two decades apart, Pete Candler and his friend John toured the backroads of the South, searching for vestiges of a history they weren’t taught as “private-school white boys” and uncovering truths about Candler’s ancestors never passed down through family lore (“My family name is front-and-center in the history of lynching of African Americans in the United States. How am I only just now hearing about it?”).
Candler writes of his hometown, Atlanta, as a place of amnesia: detached from history, allergic to preservation. “It is as if even the city’s buildings themselves desire oblivion,” he writes. “Truth has not been especially well remembered in a city that has made forgetfulness a marketing strategy.”
In his personal essay at the LA Review of Books, Candler recounts both road trips — the first one in the 1990s, when the men were in their mid-20s, armed with rolls of black-and-white film and a basic knowledge of Flannery O’Connor; and their more recent journey in 2018, as they retraced their steps and revisited monuments with wide eyes and a different perspective.
Revisiting takes work. A first experience of a place is primarily an act of reception, of taking in what you had never seen before. But going back a second time requires the additional work of reckoning the fact that you are not the same person you were the first time, and neither is the place itself. The South is different now. So are we.
Twenty years ago, I wasn’t wise to the ways the legacy of white supremacy is written into the landscape of places like Tuskegee, how monuments to Confederate soldiers were put up in public places like the town square here as reminders to African Americans of their place in an overtly racist regime, and as a warning to them not to forget it. I might have been able to believe then that the monuments were pretty banal, just part of the landscape, but exceptions to America’s story of itself. I failed to ask some pretty basic questions.
I read Du Bois now under the shadow of my distant cousin. I am not especially surprised that my family has never mentioned Allen Candler. Nor am I surprised to learn that he was a racist. What is surprising is that, even in my own tight-lipped family, an event of such local and national significance should have been so completely passed over in silence.
O’Connor’s work helped introduce me to a South I had little experience with. But she also introduced me to the idea that hope — for oneself, for one’s city, for one’s nation — is only to be found in an honest, and often violent, confrontation with the past — one’s own, one’s city’s, and one’s nation’s. Mythologies may be soothing, and even good for tourism, but they cannot save us. O’Connor showed me that there is no future for any of us without a clear-eyed and unsentimental reckoning with our own complicity in the suffering of others. That there is nothing more terrifying, exciting, and liberating than the unlearning of untruths, the dethroning of the self and its enabling illusions, the freedom of spaces newly opened up where lies once were.