Over Spring Break this year I had the pleasure and the privilege to travel with artist Kara Walked & her MMM research group to Atlanta to investigate representations of the past in the South. We visited the King Center, Auburn Street, Oakland Cemetery, another cemetery in the small town of Franklin, and we wrapped up the trip with a visit to Stone Mountain. The trip resulted in a publication for which I submitted an essay (attached below) as well as an exhibition of student work that emerged from the trip, a "cabinet of curiosities."
The Great American Forgetting: Taking Measure Across the Landscape
I’ve seen the videos of Dr. King, of Malcolm X, of Stokely Carmichael, of Angela Davis, of Erica Huggins, of Fred Hampton. Black and white, grainy footage of another era, these figures rendered almost as mythical superheroes. Maybe it’s the rough quality of the film, perhaps the intensity of their facial expressions, or maybe it’s the circulation of the same clips, poses, and images, but I am lulled into thinking of these figures asresiding in a remote past. A time before. A time before a certain version of America came into being, the one that I was born into.
I did of course hear stories from my father, about his immigration to the USA sometime after 1965 (specific dates are rarely mentioned), about his arrival in Lawrence, Kansas, one of the few Indians in town, about his lonely days living at the YMCA, warming cans on a hotplate in his room. I heard also his fantastic story of going to the Kansas State Fair, sometime in the 1970s, spreading a bedsheet on the ground, sitting there in his turban and allowing people to throw money down to him, thinking that he was some kind of exotic circus act. He needed the money, and this worked. It was easier than his summer job, picking peaches in Yuba City California. Eventually he had to remove his turban and cut his hair in order to a find a job, but he never told me any stories about deeply enforced segregation or violence, although there is a lot that he does not say.
I do remember the story he told me about travelling to the South with some college friends, driving into a town, and stopping at a restaurant for dinner. They seated themselves, and the waitress refused to serve the black friend they were with, until she realized that he was a real African, from overseas, and then they were served. Despite hearing these stories while growing up in Chicago, I think of this past as so far, so distant, so remote.
In Atlanta in 2017, Willie Huff speaks about his life on Auburn Avenue, the street we stand on, the street he grew up on. He stands there with his daughter, Daonne, and poses for a photograph. We see the parking lot where his old home used to be, we see his cousin’s house, next to another relative’s house. We stand in front as he recounts stories connected to the house, connected to the cousin, but then also ranging farther away…to his time as a treasurer for the Black Panther Party in Atlanta, the Free Breakfast program they ran, going to graduate school and joining the ROTC partly to avoid the draft, to avoid Vietnam.
He speaks of his life as centered in these streets, around Auburn, and then also down Decatur Street, where he enrolled in Georgia State University in 1968, just one year after it was desegregated. Before this time everything was separate and second hand, “even though we was paying taxes like everybody else.” He speaks of the main SCLC office down the street from his old home, he speaks of Ebenezer Baptist Church, where “Daddy King,” MLK’s father, was preaching, where later “King started doing his business in 63, 64, 65.” He speaks of Grady Homes, the public housing project his family later lived in, demolished in 2005. A report written for the Atlanta Housing Authority in 2011 recognizes the loss of community, but it was all for the best to remove it. “Residents who lived at Grady for some time indicated that they enjoyed the sense of community and the convenience, i.e. living within walking distance to the hospital, stores, work…However, by 2004 Grady had become a very dangerous environment in which to live. The environment was usually very noisy and there were regular shootouts among drug dealers.” They were replaced by Ashley Auburn Pointe Apartments, a mixed income development in 2011.
Willie is a “Grady baby,” born in Grady Hospital, right down the street, which was the only hospital serving black people in Atlanta. There was a lead factory across the street from Grady Homes, now the luxury Pencil Factory Flats are located there. A visit to their website shows a mix of young Atlantans hanging out around the new pool, in the gym, luxuriating on Roche Bobois sofas in well-appointed apartments. We stand in front of the flats and Willie tells us how that whole side of the street was used for manufacturing. He would see people walking out after a day’s work, dirty and covered in lead and dust.
The neighborhood changed after Vietnam when “everyone came back addicted to heroin or something.” A crime wave came along as the drug problem grew and vets became addicted. “You’d find them in closets with spikes in their arms.” But he also speaks of the vibrant business district located in the neighborhood before this time, located just north of Ebenezer Baptist. There were many Jews, who had emigrated from Lebanon, running grocery stores and convenient stores, like the Shaid Supermarket. There were many black-owned businesses as well, further down Auburn – banks, insurance agencies, beauty supply stores, nightclubs and funeral homes. Club Royal Peacock. Barbara’s Beauty Supply. Many of these were shut down after desegregation, as chain stores filled in.
We stop and pause in front of the fence. He speaks of how lucky he was to have lived, while at Grady Homes, at the edge of the housing project, right on Decatur Street, 322 Decatur. Here at the edge “you could dream” sitting on the steps and looking out at the street. “All my dreams…sitting on this porch.” From here you could see the life of the city, you could see white people driving past on Decatur. He saw nice cars, Mercedes, and decided he wanted one. In 1977 he bought his first Mercedes, powder blue, diesel. Daonne remembers later seeing another Mercedes, gold and silver.
This is not far back in time, and Willie even looks so young, unlined face, navy blue track suit and Kangol hat. Yet it’s hard to recognize the nearness of his experiences, and many tend to view this as a remote past, one that has been overcome. “Just get over it,” some say, at sites where such histories and memories are represented. “I didn’t live then, so it’s not my problem,” and “Why bring all that up again, it’s too painful...black citizens should get over it,” are a few reactions to sites that represent the history of slavery or the struggle for civil rights 1“We refuse to sit upon your stool of everlasting repentance,” they said in Savannah in 2002. “An anti-white exercise in shame and blame,” and “a threat to…faith in Southern heritage, American tradition, culture and glory,” they said in Wallace Louisiana in 2014.
“They should just move on.” Willie has. He moved to Alabama where “US Steel ran the state,” where they recruited him to be a manager at BellSouth, even though it was a difficult place for black people to be at the time, Birmingham was, “where all that nonsense was going on.” Today US Steel still owns large tracts of land in Alabama, about 150,000 acres as of 2011. Today Willie is a big supporter of America, “of what it currently has become.” Only here, he says, can it happen. “I was born in the slums, and all my kids have advanced degrees.” He has moved on, but can we?
Is forgetting really possible? In his essay on the Use and Abuse of History, Nietzsche writes:
For when [the] past is analyzed critically, then we grasp with a knife at its roots and go cruelly beyond all reverence. It is always a dangerous process, that is, a dangerous process for life itself. And people or ages serving life in this way, by judging and destroying a past, are always dangerous and in danger. For since we are now the products of earlier generations, we are also the products of their aberrations, passions, mistakes, and even crimes. It is impossible to loose oneself from this chain entirely. When we condemn that confusion and consider ourselves released from it, then we have not overcome the fact that we are derived from it.
He points to the impossibility of forgetting, of disconnecting from an unwanted historical context, where even the forgotten is intricately interwoven, collectively, with our cultural selves. For Lyotard, certain “excitations” are so troubling that they cannot be processed or dealt with. They do not even enter or affect consciousness; they are not introduced and remain “unpresented” as a “silence which does not make itself heard as silence.” He refers to a “reserve” that retains this memory “without consciousness having been informed about it.” It “lies in the reserve in the interior hidden away…” Thus, what has been ‘forgotten’ is always held in reserve - whether we would have it or not. Ricoeur argues that “the most troubling experiences of forgetting…display their most malevolent effects only on the scale of collective memories.”
I suffer, we all suffer, because of this neglect, this ambient obscurance, this obsfuscation. It affects us all, and it is impossible to loosen this chain. And here our great country, against our will, rewrites the narrative.
The resource of narrative then becomes the trap, when higher powers take over the emplotment and impose a canonical narrative by means of intimidation or seduction, fear or flattery. A devious form of forgetting is at work here, resulting from the stripping of social actors of their original powers to recount their actions for themselves.
Blame, guilt, shame is pushed on to the South. An other place, different from here. We revel in the great myth of American blamelessness, as expressed at our monuments at Ground Zero and at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. These are sites of great tragedies, of enormous scale and consequence, but they are also sites of a performance, whereby we “legitimize American blamelessness,” where the deaths of innocent victims are marshaled to “legitimate national security narratives of revenge and retribution…”1The deaths of these innocents are still being used today to justify exclusionary policies that seek to limit immigration, and even travel. Even the much-lauded Vietnam Veterans Memorial has been criticized as a site of highly selective memory and forgetting. As a veteran of the war stated, “Our healing here is therapeutic, but not historic…The memorial says exactly what we wanted to say about Vietnam…absolutely nothing.”2 Neither of these sites takes a critical stance on what happened or why. We point, as always, to the innocent victims who died. We are blameless; the guilty parties are elsewhere.
We forget the retreat after the 1870s, the allowance of the institution of Jim Crow laws, Plessy vs. Ferguson, “…the long and violent hangover after the Civil War when the South, left to its own devices as the North looked away, dismantled the freedoms granted former slaves after the war.” This forgetting is required so that we can maintain the right to impart blame to an other place. In this forgetting we all become trapped in the narrative, not realizing that it is not possible to tell the story of ‘here’ without also telling the story of ‘there.’ It is not possible to tell the story of the North without also telling the story of the South. It is not possible to tell the story of my father in Chicago without telling the story of Kansas. These histories echo across landscapes, connecting places like Alabama and St. Louis, Mississippi and New York. Fragmenting and compartmentalizing these into neat narratives does not work. Whether addressed or not, they echo throughout the American landscape, taking measure of our progress, of our past. It does no good to try to impart this past to an other place, a foreign way of life, from a ‘now’ to a ‘then.’ All the things and people that make our America possible carry these echoes with them, through the economic drivers, through the “sacrificial landscapes” from which we extract resources: mineral, cultural, human.
Distancing in time is mirrored by a distancing of place. Today another kind of geographical forgetting occurs, as other uncomfortable realities are ignored, tucked away, far out of sight. Today we forget Louisiana, bayous destroyed by oil, the leaks from great underground salt domes, that we don’t even know exist, giant hidden caverns the size of huge monuments to geological processes, but also to industry, progress, economic development. The Napoleonville Dome, three miles wide and one mile deep, lies below the earth under a layer of oil and natural gas. Here 53 caverns are owned by petrochemical companies, who rent out space, caverns, where chemicals and brine are stored. One was punctured as Texas Brine was drilling deep inside it in 2012.
When the drill pierced the side of one cavern inside the dome, a catastrophe slowly unfolded. Weakened, one wall of the cavern crumpled under the pressure of the surrounding shale. Water was sucked down, drawing trees and brush with it. Oil from around the dome oozed up. The earth shook. In places its surface tilted and sank.
This underground geology, and the disasters of enterprise incurred there, are easy to forget, until they bubble up and beg attention. It still bubbles today, as the sinkhole created by the accidental piercing is now 35 acres in size, and still growing, still burping up barrels of oil to the surface.
We ignore and forget coal country and fracking landscapes in Western Pennsylvania, where chemicals seep into bodies of water and then into real live human bodies. We have the luxury of ignoring these sacrificial landscapes that make our lifestyles possible, bringing us plastic bags and toothpaste, plastic luggage racks for SUVs (made by JAC Products in Franklin, Georgia). They bring us the supply of endlessly cheap energy that allows for the full, unthrottled expression of the American Dream. This is cheap until it extracts a great cost, as it did in the last presidential election, when these sacrificial landscapes and underground geologies of commerce and destructive extraction bubbled over and refused to be silent.
I feel these echoes across the American landscape, across the great plane of American history, footsteps echoing across time and place, the graveyards of the past and the bodies of the present. These echo for me in places that collapse time into clear moments of continuity. As W.G. Sebald wrote in Austerlitz.
Such ideas infallibly come to me in places which have more of the past about them than the present. For instance, if I am walking through the city and look into one of those quiet courtyards where nothing has changed for decades, I feel, almost physically, the current of time slowing down in the gravitational field of oblivion. It seems to me then as if all the moments of our life occupy the same space, as if future events already existed and were only waiting for us to find our way to them at last, just as when we have accepted an invitation we duly arrive at a certain house at a given time. And might it not be…that we also have appointments to keep in the past, in what has gone before and is for the most part extinguished, and must go there in search of places and people who have some connection with us on the far side of time, so to speak?
These echo for me in the stories told by my father, in the stories told by Daonne’s father. They echo in Oakland Cemetery, where Margaret Mitchell, author of the great American Mythology Gone with the Wind, lies in the same soil as Maynard Jackson, Atlanta’s first African American mayor; the site of the burial of 6,900 Confederate soldiers; the site of Potters Field, where over 12,000 African Americans lie buried in now unmarked graves. I feel these echoes, these reverberations, through my feet as I stand on the heavy might of Stone Mountain, its weighty, granite mass protruding through the earth, its peak, the meager 10% of the giant igneous pluton that is visible to the eye has been scratched at, violated by the forces of history, embossed with the great heroes of the Confederacy: Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, and Jefferson Davis. Only a quick moment of its mass is visible, rising from a mighty foundation that sinks for 9 miles below the surface of the ground, that spreads and forms a bedrock upon which the outlying suburbs of metropolitan Atlanta have built their homes.
The surface of the mountain is richly textured, chisel marks remain, imprints of the quarrying of the mountain by the Venable Bros., at its peak producing up to 25,000 granite paving blocks per day. Exfoliated slabs hang precariously along the slopes, caused by “tremendous strain” in the granite, causing the splitting off of these thin, curved plates. Veins runs vertically through the stone, its horizontal surfaces are pocked by vernal pools collecting lichen and mosses, the beginnings of soil and life. The Geologic Guide to Stone Mountain Park explains these features. Exfoliation joints were created on the mountain as the granite expanded, and tensional joints were formed as the granite cooled. “The landscape you have observed today reflects the mountain’s existence in its stage of mighty conflict between internal and external forces.”
 Thomas D. Boston, Impact of the Mixed-Income Revitalization of Grady Homes: Atlanta Housing Authority (The Housing Authority of the City of Atlanta, 2011).
 Doss, Erica, Memorial Mania: Public Feeling in America (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2010), 256.
 Doss, Memorial Mania, 289.
 Friedrich Nietzsche, The Use and Abuse of History (Cosimo Classics, 2010 (1873)),18.
 Jean-Francois Lyotard, Heidegger and “the jews” (Translated by Andreas Michel and Mark S. Roberts. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1990), 12-13.
 Paul Ricoeur, Memory, History, Forgetting (Chicago: University Of Chicago Press, 2004), 447-48.
 Ricoeur, Memory, 448.
 Doss, Memorial Mania, 153.
 Doss, Memorial Mania, 130.
 Isabel Wilkerson, Warmth of Other Suns (New York:Vintage Books, 2010), 37.
 Brian Black, Petrolia: The Landscape of America’s First Oil Boom (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 2000).
 Arlie Russell Hochschild, Strangers in their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right (New York and London: The New Press, 2016), 101.
 W.G. Sebald, Austerlitz (London: Penguin Books, 2001), 359-60.
 Robert L. Atkins and Lisa G. Joyce, Geologic Guide to Stone Mountain Park (Atlanta: Georgia Department of Natural Resources, 1980), 27.