A Road By Any Other Name
My best friend and I have a healthy obsession with the American South. Or rather, the progress of the American South. He’s a white guy and I’m a black woman so we have fun with it. We treat it like a sports team; tracking stats, embracing major players, holding our breath when subversive strategic choices are made, anything to make our team—our little pocket of the world—better. Such long-suffering fandom feels like baseball. We comfortably roost in our foldout chairs of singular Southern tradition, but spend much of the game tracking the dangerous nuances of each play. Southern living keeps you on your toes.
What began as a decent appreciation, fostered by suburban Atlanta upbringing, erupted when we attended a large Southern university. There, we underwent what might scientifically be classified as brainwashing. And we loved it. My mania peaked when I moved 2,000 miles west after graduation. This newly realized love for Georgia, specifically, wasn’t homesickness but instead a medical breakthrough; a cure to body dysmorphia. Distanced from her, my home’s blemishes became remarkable beauty marks.
A few years removed from graduation, my best friend called and let me know he was leaving our haven college town to move to Atlanta, right inside the Interstate 285 perimeter near the historical, socioeconomically diverse Grant Park.
A visit home for Christmas finally arrived. Overwhelmed by my new life in not Georgia, I was zealous to exhale big and tour his new neighborhood. “Send me the address,” I texted him. I met his reply with an involuntary grin, probably to cradle the hit.
He lived on Confederate Avenue.
Later, welcomed by an immoderate hug, I muffled something into his musky plaid shirt along the lines of, “You live on f***ing Confederate Avenue.”
“I know, it’s crazy,” he said, because a lot of times white people don’t know what to say.
It’s a September school night nearly two years later. Atlanta nestles into fall habit. I’m visiting from Southern California and thrilled to be experiencing discernable change in weather. District 1 Councilwoman Carla Smith announces she has received a petition confirming a majority of Grant Park neighbors support changing the name of Confederate Avenue and its sister streets, the former being the most prominent community connector. Today, residents gather at City Hall to trade final thoughts before the vote in a couple days.
Councilwoman Smith leans forward to offset the raised judicial bench and thanks attendees by name for their support. “Constance calls me when there’s trash,” so thanks to Constance’s son who brought Constance tonight.
A local politician, who happens to be Smith’s neighbor, stands to thank her for bringing everyone together. It’s heartfelt. She gives a perfunctory acknowledgment then remembers, “There’s a sign-up sheet right over here. Everyone sign up.”
Every person that stands at the podium over the next hour and a half pricks at my stomach with weird satisfaction. I can’t help but smile big at these undistinguished citizens willing to hold their hand to the stove and speak with strangers about race and Confederacy of all things.
Which is what attracts my best friend and me most. Our entire lives, we’ve heard the prevailing arguments surrounding Southern shortcomings and “heritage not hate”, yet we never grow tired of it. We invite exploring the darkest corners of our history. We love that, unlike the rest of the country, the South has zero liberty to pretend we’re above reproach. Thank God.
However, I’m reminded that this hearing isn’t popcorn amusement meant to satisfy my historical masochism. There’s more at stake here. Like identity.
“I’m an eighth generation American and sixth generation Georgian.”
The inaugural speaker is kind of bald, round and doughy— could be a biker, or maybe a Pixar character that, despite his dubious characteristics, will redeem himself in the third act. I wouldn’t say he’s approachable, but he is lovable. Ears perk to meet his high-pitched twang that’s vintage enough to make you miss a word here and there.
He rolls through affinities for the South, where “I Wish I Was in Dixie” played in the background on the schoolyard (pronounced “scoow”) when he was a kid. The nostalgia, pending song change, convinced me that we both romanticize our upbringing. His: inner city, seemingly knit tight by a fixed community, tradition and white people. Mine: outside the city, daunting and strange until it was the opposite, and also white— except I am not. Georgia was the sweet incubator of our dreamy adolescences. So I understand his passion.
However, his passion lies in a Confederate-centric South. He knows a lot about them too. He asks attendees to mourn the suffering of the Confederate soldiers, and insists we all have an obligation to honor the “blood, death and carnage” buried in the grounds surrounding the avenue, named in recognition of the former Confederate hospital that resides on the street. As if plucked from the antebellum era, he shudders at the mention of Union General Sherman, who raped, burned and “killed the blacks and whites. We were all in this together.”
His arguments excurse into discordant topics like ISIS, social media, Teddy Roosevelt and his hatred for being called a white supremacist. Cable news musings stock his library of desperate rationalizing—a reasonable venture for someone who might feel they’re losing grip on the world around them. As best he can, he’s stiff-arming society’s shift, however inevitable that shift is.
Confederate trivia streams from another rightful adversary of General Sherman. Sweet Ms. Mary, I’ll call her, calmly passes out reading material to assist her lesson. It includes insightful blurbs about black Confederate soldiers and a poem titled, “Suffering of Southerners.”
One story spotlights Roswell Mill workers, mostly females, who were subjected to assault and kidnapping by Sherman’s soldiers. Four hundred women and children were stripped from their work posts and exiled North, where some died of starvation. Now agitated by her own recounting, Sweet Ms. Mary points out Southern suffering isn’t gendered—it’s vast and pervades beyond the male soldiers on the battlefield. This observation feeds her plea that “censoring the strength of the South is disrespectful of past generations.”
Regardless of the underlying mindset fueling these two, it’s clear they are reacting to one of the more brutal side effects of living: human suffering. We suffer, then we fight to escape or at least mend the atrocity. That’s why people look for love or drink too much whiskey or attend city hall meetings.
One sufferer holds the podium to mourn lost mail. A while back, she was gifted a big-screen television and excitedly awaited its arrival at her East Confederate Ave. home. But it never came. The television was mistakenly sent to the same house number on Confederate Ave. “The street names are just too confusing.” Plus, “the post office just isn’t the same as it used to be,” she puffs.
Then there’s George. George has beautiful white hair cut just above his shoulders so it’s essentially a bob. His yellow t-shirt compliments his casual kindness as he confesses he is a Confederate Ave. resident but not a seventh generation American. In fact, he’s British. Twenty-five years living in America and he’s learned a great deal about our histories (plural). “Some gets in the books, some doesn’t.” He offers one of the more honest arguments of the evening: at this point, we probably won’t resolve division that caused the war between the states 150 years ago.
George’s ability to adopt America’s suffering and work to alleviate it is an inspiring display of humanism. George joined Neighbors for a New Name a few years ago when it looked like city leadership might ignore the demands to address the abounding presence of Confederate names and monuments. The group visited and spoke with residents, considered their wants, and initiated change; getting so far as to host a vote on alternate street names for Confederate Avenue. “Some people here may be upset theirs didn’t get picked. My idea got in the top three,” but his suggestion conclusively was passed on in favor of the name United Avenue. George’s suffering, today at least, resembles rejection. “But I support United,” he abides. Next time, George.
George and the mail lady are limited visits of reprieve. After them, we complete our acute shift from Confederate sympathy towards racial empathy and reconciliation.
In comes a procession of men who understand suffering well enough that their livelihoods kind of depend on it. They spend their Sunday mornings pacing behind pulpits, parlaying scripture and damn good charisma to transform daily hardship into faith and inspiration. It’s no wonder they float with familiarity in this space.
Black preachers from local churches take the floor intermittently, I theorize in a consorted effort to course-correct when someone drifts from altruism and moral depth. (Against them, it’s hard to sympathize with the attorney complaining about having to order new stationery.) Masters of pragmatism, they urge understanding between all races and emphasize the overdue need for racial reconciliation—the spine of the Civil Rights Movement. Like a broken gospel record, out pours messages of unity, forgiveness, righteousness in Christ, and even acceptance of tragedy.
At times, they do hint at their own blackness by sharing personal anecdotes of ancestors who suffered in the hands of the white establishment back then, and loved ones that suffer at the hands of law enforcement today. Yet these conceivably divisive stories are delivered with an intention to relate, to listen and to grieve on mutual grounds. One pastor acknowledges the place the Christian church plays in racial injustice, saying he’d “like to repent for the division we have brought in the area of race in this nation.”
Turns out, reaching people through humility and redress works. Later, a white man that I am 90 percent certain is Bill Gates, praises his black Woodland Hills pastor and “good friend”, sharing an epiphany that black people dream of hearing from white people. “I’ve learned a lot about racial reconciliation and I know enough now that I don’t know very much.” He really likes history, but ultimately chooses to follow the love-thy-neighbor teachings of the Bible. If the history behind a street name hurts you, then it hurts me too.
Women grow up knowing what they don’t know, simply because that’s a reminder we get a lot. So we’re susceptible to hearing people out.
Which is why I pay close attention to white women of a certain kind. Some of them, ignited by a particular empathy and, let’s be honest, tinctures of guilt, tend to listen to and speak up for silenced crowds before their male counterparts. Most of my friends are bold white women who gracelessly oscillate between bewilderment (“Oh my gosh, I had no idea.”) and keen awareness and refusal of their own privilege. This sticky existence in uncertainty is their suffering.
A woman who resides on Confederate Ave muses incredulously when she drives down her street every day. “This is honoring a part of history where certain leaders committed acts of treason.” And like most everyone in attendance, she thinks of the children. “The ones who have to wait at the bus stop and read that sign.” She asserts that the mere presence of a street bearing that name is “implying that we honor the tenants of slavery; that we still believe in discrimination, slavery, dehumanization.”
Another woman echoes previous statements that any costs associated with changing the signs pale in comparison to the costs of damage inflicted to a community. Imagine, sharing your address with friends visiting town— “it makes me sound like I’m complicit in stigmatizing brothers and sisters… It’s a daily reminder.”
Interest begins to wane and a few people tiptoe out as an undeterred final speaker bows into the mic, disarming the crowd with a congenial smile and sweet teenage boy in tow.
The man’s gangly brown limbs contrast his bright yellow cycling jersey. He invites everyone to breathe in majestic southeastern landscapes that he, his 14-year-old grandson and classmates peddle through on their multi-state cycling treks. During a trip in July of 2016, they stopped in Charleston, S.C. to visit Emmanuel A.M.E. Church, just one year after a 21-year-old white supremacist, and believer of Confederate mythology, shot and killed nine black churchgoers during bible study.
The boys spent a high summer afternoon speaking with a local official about the history of the church. Perhaps they sat in the stiff pews. Maybe they smelled the chapel room and listened for creaks in the holy, weathered wood. A photo from that day is the screensaver on the grandfather’s computer.
His strategy to embolden the boys is apparent. He introduced them to the practice of confrontation and begs for us try it out. Directly confront the world’s imperfections. I can’t help but sense his musings are a challenge against society’s tendency to consume, sensationalize, criticize, post and picket every tragedy— never taking time to consider the minutia of these occurrences, the people involved, the history behind it. He asks we use provocative street names and church shootings as opportunities to really look at and correct ourselves. To surpass the extreme persecution and simply become better. His grandson now knows what that looks like.
Here, I depart from my comfortable position as an onlooker and fan, instead feeling pains I figured I’d disinfected. Because I avoid black suffering like a plague. I don’t dwell on it, I don’t read about it. With a quick click of my radio dial, I always politely refuse news detailing the latest shooting of an unarmed black person, or how our towns are not getting clean water, or how we, statistically speaking, will always be at the bottom. Silence. When I do peek in, most of the realities shake me. I feel a bit hopeless, very alone, and undoubtedly angry. It’s dreadful. It’s why I prefer observing from the stands, distanced and numb.
“I did not intend to speak this evening. Only reason I came up, looking around the room, I am the only person who brought a young person with me. Introduce yourself,” he says. His grandson sheepishly stands behind him.
The grandson states his name. “Um. I’m in the 9th grade at Maynard Holbrook Jackson High School.” He pauses, sensing he should say more. We hold our breath.
But his rest sits for too long, and Grandpa steps in again.
At that moment, the grandson’s suffering was mine. We’re informed, we can speak, we have a future we’re inclined to fight for, yet we yield to something intangible; fear, inexperience, apathy, who knows. I’m a decade older than this kid, and I can’t afford to cling to my seat in good conscious any longer. The place I love, actually the entire world surrounding me, needs to be confronted. And it can’t be done sitting down or keeping quiet.
Deanna Mitchell is a Georgia native pursuing television writing in Los Angeles. She prefers not being in LA and thus reads and travels a lot. She studied Film Studies at University of Georgia.