The first time I watched the Laser Show Spectacular at Stone Mountain Park was when I was about eight years old. That was over thirty years ago, so lasers actually were considered spectacular. I went with one of my friends, and when the lasers made the carving come alive, and Elvis started singing Dixieland, my friend's mom got very emotional.
The multicolored lasers reflected on her upturned face, eyes big as saucers, tears running down her cheeks, her lips parted slightly in awe and reverence. I was embarrassed, and couldn't look at her. I looked around instead, and saw people standing with their hands over their hearts, or planked against their foreheads, in salute.
Is this what is means to love America? I looked back at the Laser Spectacular, where the flag I pledged allegiance to every school day morning was now waving, representing a union of people and land and beliefs where once they were divided. This IS what it means to love America, I thought, comprehension and emotion welling up inside me. My back straightened, and my chin raised as I felt the power of the Union, the UNITED STATES of AMERICA.
But after the Laser Spectacular was over, the lights flooded the lawn, and there were all the memorials to the confederacy around us. I didn't understand it, and was conflicted. My friend and her parents were from Kentucky, but mine were from Ohio and New Jersey, respectively. I figured my parents never told me why the south was still glorious was because they were yankees.
After all, my friend attended cotillion, and her family ate southern food, and they all talked the same. There was none of the stilted "bah-nah-nah" or "caw-fee" I heard from my own mother, and always "y'all" instead of the "y'ins" I heard when we visited my father's parents. My friend could even call her mother "mama" without being berated for sounding ignorant.
As children, we find ways to make sense of things that don't quite seem right, and I made sense of my confusion at southern pride by identifying as a child of yankees, born into a backward, yet prideful, culture. Grits and God and mint juleps and red clay. It was all so charming.
I was mesmerized the first time I saw Gone With the Wind - here were all the answers to my questions about the south. I educated myself in southern ways by first watching the film three or four times, and then reading the novel over and over again. It was, by far, the greatest resource any first-generation southerner could have in the 1980's.
But even as I learned the hows and the whys of confederate pride and disdain for yankees, the logic of it all continued to escape me. Why, when there is so much pride and love for the entire United States of America, is there this clinging to the old ways that nearly destroyed who we are today?
It wasn't until I was in high school that I found my answer: racism.
As non-traditional southerners, my parents were not overt with their racism. Instead, I was taught I could not marry a black person because we would produce genetically inferior children; that black people acted differently from white people because they were not as intelligent; and even that AIDS originated with a black man in Africa having sex with a monkey. These horrendous things were all taught to me under an air of discretion, not because they were wildly ignorant and inaccurate, but because it was not polite to speak of these things openly.
My parents did not use racial slurs, they just explained to me in acceptable language the unacceptable notion that we were superior to others based on the whiteness of our skin. It was quite subversive, and I just accepted these bits of information as truths - why wouldn't I? No one told me any differently, and they were taught to me in a manner reflecting logic, not hate.
Around 15 years old, though, I became aware of the overtly disparaging nature of racists by being around people generationally from the south. It was when I began to realize that racism was not logical, as my parents taught me, but quite emotional; specifically the emotions of anger and hatred.
It dawned on me that within the realm of my own experience, the people I heard preaching about heritage and the true meaning of the confederacy and it's flag were also - 100% of the time - people who made racist remarks and held negative views toward people who are not white.
Having been educated in the areas of statistics, probabilities, correlations, and causations, I cannot say with 100% certainty that 100% of confederate sympathizers are 100% racist 100% of the time. I can say generally, though, that people who romanticize the confederacy are racists, and my basis upon which to state that is simple logic.
Once the Civil Rights Act of 1964 established people could be held financially liable for their overt racism, the subversive racism I learned from my parents became more of the norm. It was like speaking in code, one in which inflection and facial expression carried the interpretive weight of the words now constricted by law.
The confederate flag gained popularity in the southern United States as a symbol protesting the civil rights movement and school desegregation. Southern states incorporated the symbol into official state flags, which are still seen throughout the south today. The idea that this flag represents anything other than support for segregation based on skin color rose largely from political wording defending it's use as "heritage."
One of the images most associated with Stone Mountain Park is the carving etched into it's side.
The carving itself portrays three confederate leaders, President Jefferson Davis, and generals Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson. The Ku Klux Klan was intimately involved in the carving's commission. The Laser Show Spectacular still incorporates the carving into it's program every summer night, and it is still surrounded by attractions with names like "Confederate Hall" and "Antebellum Plantation."
A few months ago I wrote an article about the television show Revolution, which shot it's pilot episode in Stone Mountain Park. When I put a link on my FaceBook page, my cousin from Washington commented that I took him to a confederate ceremony there years before. I was aghast...and then I realized he was talking about The Laser Show Spectacular at Stone Mountain Park.
And he was right. For all the focus on the commencement of the laser show emphasizing unity in the United States, it is still presented on a carving commissioned by the KKK. There are still confederate flags flying throughout the property.
Stone Mountain Park is one giant illustration - a literal monument - of the ignorance and obtuse rigidity of racism in the United States of America.
I get offended by people from Hollywood who come here and look down on us as backwoods rednecks, but boasting Stone Mountain Georgia as one of our most visited tourist attractions leaves me thinking they may just be right about that. Racism exists, though, in varying forms of aggression, and passive-aggression, all over our country.
However, letting go of our monuments to hatred, our overt acceptance of ignorance, would be a move in the right direction. It would be cutting the apron strings from our regional disgrace, instead of defiantly insisting we are not what we actually are. At the very least, we will acknowledge and release an image of hate - and images are incredibly powerful.