In “Almost Home,” an essay at the Los Angeles Review of Books, Pete Candler reflects on growing up in Atlanta, and the symbols of white supremacy in his hometown.
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.
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.
The piece nicely complements Candler’s March 2019 essay, “A Deeper South,” in which he revisits monuments in the South with a new perspective and uncovers truths about his ancestry. Like this previous essay, “Almost Home” is moving and meditative, and Candler writes beautifully on place, memory, and legacy.
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.
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.
Later in the piece, Candler describes a trip he takes with one of his sons from Asheville, where he now lives, to Atlanta; he introduces Charlie to some of the places he loves, in the hope that he will love them, and — perhaps — sow a connection to them, too.
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.