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I didn’t get it

June 2, 2020

I am a 45-year-old, college-educated, professional, heterosexual white male. I am a birthright citizen of the United States of America and English is my native language.

There are a few things about me that I would call, not necessarily disabilities, but “deficiencies”; whatever impact they may have pales in comparison to the advantages, indeed the privilege, I possess merely by meeting the criteria I listed in the first paragraph.

I grew up in the suburbs of Atlanta, Georgia, in a metropolitan oasis within the Deep South. I grew up almost literally in the shadow of Stone Mountain, an outcropping of granite upon which is carved what could be considered a Mount Rushmore of the Confederacy: Jefferson Davis, Stonewall Jackson, and Robert E. Lee on horseback. I climbed Stone Mountain many times, on the opposite side of the carving, and I even worked there, in the park, for a season.

I didn’t get it. I objectively knew who was represented there. I attended, many times as well, the Laser Show, where the sculpture “came to life” in beams of light and music. By the time I was a young adult, one part of the show depicted Lee surveying his dead soldiers and a tear dropping from his eye, and then breaking his sword over his knee, and then the outlines of the northern and southern states drawing back together into one nation. The first couple of times I saw this portion- portrayed while Elvis sings “An American Trilogy,” which features the strange juxtaposition of “Dixie” followed by “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”- I thought, how poignant. They are showing Lee as realizing how futile the war was and how great it is that the divided nation was healed.

I didn’t get it. That little feel-good animation was nothing but revisionist history. If it had been true, there would never have been motivation to carve those three figures on a mountain side, nor erect statues to those proclaimed the fallen heroes of the Lost Cause.

That mountain lies no more than 15 miles as the crow flies from the King Center in downtown Atlanta. Dr. King mentioned it in his “I Have a Dream” speech: “Let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia.” It was surely a conscious choice. He knew not only about the carvings, but the fact that Stone Mountain was the site of the rebirth of the KKK in Georgia in 1915.

Growing up, I never thought I was racist. I thought my parents did not mean to be racist, but occasionally they could be. They were products of their time, both born in Georgia at the height of the Great Depression, one on a farm down south, the other in a small cotton mill town in what is now an exurb of Atlanta. They would say things that implied they would always perceive Black people as “Other,” not necessarily inferior, but definitely different from them. Statements made in passing like “she’s pretty, for a black girl.”

My father called it the “Civil War” but gave equal credence to the “War Between the States”. He called Lincoln a fraud because the Emancipation Proclamation did not free any slaves in reality. He thought Lee was noble because he wouldn’t betray his home state of Virginia (instead, he violated his oath as an officer of the U.S. Army). He would, sometimes, support the argument that yes, slavery was evil, but their lives were still better than they had been in Africa. He had met and respected MLK Sr. but thought far less of his son for being an adulterer. Time blurs memory and I am describing views I believe he expressed, but I was young and he departed from us 17 years ago, so I hope I am not misrepresenting any of his views.

My mother, for her part, did not pontificate on history. Hers was one of the most empathetic souls I’ve known and she always decried inequality and injustice as she saw it. She was the one liable to make the “pretty for a black girl” comment. But she was also one who always invite the Jehovah’s Witnesses– invariably black women– into the living room to chat for an hour or so. She did want to get me out of my neighborhood high school, which was about 99% black, and we used my grandmother’s address to send me to a school that was about 50/50 when I started but closer to 80/20 (black/white) by the time I graduated.

I went on to college, schooling and working in downtown Atlanta. My neighborhood grew blacker. It didn’t bother me, but I saw white flight literally before my eyes, as close neighbors gradually moved away, one after another. As a result of a sequence of stupid decisions, I found myself still in college, but without a car. I had to rely on public transportation, which in Atlanta is MARTA. Actually, I had always rode the train into the city, but I drove to the train station. My mom was not willing to drive “all the way” to the train station, so she drove me to the nearest stop for a bus that connected to said station. While the train was always a mixed crowd, the bus was much more homogeneous.

In simpler terms, I was, nearly always, the only white person on the bus. Did it make me uncomfortable? Yes. I’m not proud to say it, but it’s the truth. In time, I started to get used to it. I got a bit concerned one evening when I realized the conversation around me was on the topic of “the man keeping us down” but then I heard: “but not this guy, he’s alright” clearly referring to me. Which I thought was strange, since I hadn’t spoken a word in all of it. More than that, though, I felt relieved. Maybe I should have felt offended that I was so non-threatening, but I like to see it as, there was something about my demeanor that said, this guy’s not here to judge us. Which I was not, and never have been.

That was my life, growing up. I did not see myself as a racist, and I railed against it when I saw or heard it. I remember a neighbor, two houses over. I was talking about one boy in our class (he’s a friend on facebook to this day) who was two grade levels ahead of the rest of us in math. Eventually, while we were still in elementary school (no middle school there at the time), he would have to go to the high school for part of the day for his math class. He happened to be black, and I guess I mentioned that somewhere in the conversation. My neighbor, a middle-aged white lady, said, “But Jason, surely you don’t think he’s smarter than you?” Somehow, that was epiphany moment, the point when I was just old and aware enough and hearing such a remark for the first time clearly enough to realize, “she is a racist.” I can’t remember exactly what I replied but I know it was something like “yes, he is, at least in math!”

But I still didn’t get it. Despite all the black people I knew and associated with, and the many I called friends, and my knowledge of the civil rights movement, I didn’t get it. How society defines you by a physical characteristic, how this dictates how others behave towards you. More than that, I didn’t get what those three figures in granite, and all their related statuary, and that particular flag that I knew best from the car in the Dukes of Hazzard, really represented. That they aren’t just “history” or “heritage.” They are another “h” word: Hate.

Hate of an entire race because the war to keep them enslaved was lost, because they then dared to seek equal rights, because at least a few among them would not meekly accept the inferior status legislated upon them by Jim Crow.

Hate that had slowly diminished over the decades, or so we thought. But its spirit has manifested again and again every time those who are hired to serve and protect do the exact opposite.

I didn’t get it and I can never quite get it, myself. But there are parts I can get, and ways I get to help. I can write, I can teach, I can keep the discussion going among a diverse set of young adults, so that awareness persists and action is promoted. More about that to come.

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