Stone Mountain Confederate Memorial features three 76 ft tall equestrian figures of Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson carved into the northern slope of a 1600-plus high hunk of quartz monzonite dome monadnock. Although today its website downplays its racist history, like most Confederate monuments and memorials, the Stone Mountain carving was conceived of as part of the shoring up of White supremacy through Jim Crow laws in the early twentieth century rather than having been begun immediately post-Civil War. I grew up in its shadow.
Stone Mountain memorial is also one in a long line of Confederate memorials whose iconography drew inspiration from medieval Christian European codes of chivalry as interpreted and mythologized by nineteenth- and twentieth-century antiquarians and historians. In both the medieval and later versions ideal masculinity was tied to physical prowess, skill in battle, and protection of women. The reality behind these ideals was much less high minded: in the European Middle Ages knightly violence frequently served the drive for territory and power and elite women were frequently commodities traded for the benefit of men; in the antebellum South violence was enacted upon enslaved peoples with the protection of White women a frequent justification for this brutality. It was the romanticized version of medieval knighthood, reinforced by my exposure to the remaining “Lost Cause” ideology from my childhood that likely shaped my early interest in knightly tomb effigies, and it was that romanticism which I have ultimately resisted.
Larissa Tracy has recently discussed just this phenomenon in a post for The Public Medievalist, “Fascism and Chivalry in the Confederate Monuments of Richmond.” To her discussion I can add the tomb of Robert E. Lee in the chapel of Washington and Lee University that features a life-size effigy of the former head of the Army of Northern Virginia and President of the university in full Confederate general’s uniform reclining on the tomb top with his legs crossed. The monument is today situated behind the altar of the chapel in a space decorated with Confederate battle flags. Both the pose of the effigy and its location in the sanctuary of a Christian religious space echo the attitude and site of thirteenth- and fourteenth-century English knights’ effigies. The medieval monuments were frequently located close to altars and, in England, lie on their table-top tombs with their legs crossed. The resemblance between Lee’s monument and its English medieval ancestors is no coincidence.
Both medieval and Confederate chivalric rhetoric gave rise to later mythologizing: the European Middle Ages served as a kind of origin story for an increasing European nationalism in the late-eighteenth- and nineteenth centuries that permeated the Romantic movement and its antiquarian adherents. It was this version of the Middle Ages that first drew me to its study, but my training thankfully dismantled any naïve illusions I had about this period of western history. Like so many, I also had a particularly romantic view of European knighthood that helped spark my interest in their tomb monuments. It did not take much research about the latter to cause me once again to correct my view.
A similar process of romanticization shaped popular attitudes towards the antebellum South and the Confederacy. In the decades after the Civil War, and continuing into the twentieth century, the South of this period of American history came increasingly to be viewed through the Lost Cause lens in which a rebellion against the United States government in order to preserve the enslavement of Black people was transformed into a heroic and honorable struggle against tyranny. This philosophy argued that the slave-owning, agrarian South, where childlike slaves lived under the benevolent protection of their White masters, was morally superior to the greedy, industrialized North.
This was the heritage I encountered when I moved to Atlanta, Georgia in 1960 at the age of 8. My parents, both from the north and one Jewish, always positioned our family as outsiders, so I grew up in a state of tension with my adopted society. I think it was this positioning, on the periphery of the dominant White, Christian culture of Atlanta, that has shaped my feelings about the South and my support for the long overdue removal of Confederate monuments in the wake of Black Lives Matter. Dismantling Stone Mountain might seem an impossible task, but perhaps it, too, can gradually be made to disappear.
I only visited Stone Mountain Park once or twice during my childhood as my parents strongly objected to its glorification of the Confederacy. While growing up, I hewed to my parents’ attitudes even though it isolated me from the surrounding society. My parents never embraced Atlanta as a home but lived as though merely temporarily exiled from New York City; indeed, my father had planned to return to New York upon retirement but he died at the age of 56. My mother carried on working as a physician to support three children, one developmentally disabled, and eventually grew to feel at home in Georgia’s capital.
So, I spent my formative years in Atlanta, only leaving for graduate school in New York City at age 30. Consequently, I witnessed Jim Crow in action with segregated schools, “White” and “Colored” signs on drinking fountains and restrooms, Lester Maddox threatening Black people with pick axes as they attempted to de-segregate his restaurant, and everything else that went along with violent anti-Black racism. My whole family also watched the Civil Rights marches for desegregation and voting rights unfold on the nightly news. And I learned to be on guard for the casual anti-Black or anti-Semitic comments from my friends or their parents. And even though I only had a child’s understanding of Civil Rights protests, and most of what I knew was due to my parents’ explanations, I did realize that there was something wrong with the Stone Mountain horsemen. I knew who they were and what they represented but not precisely what they really meant: anti-Blackness and White supremacy.
As I write this, I realize that for me the struggle goes beyond my ambivalent relationship to the South: a slight nostalgia for its quirkiness, its food, and its accent competing with a repulsion for its continuing racism (of course not limited to the South). But I am also grappling with my identity as an American. Throughout my childhood, as I looked at the “White” and “Colored” signs on bathrooms and drinking fountains, watched fire hoses and police dogs attacking civil rights protesters on television, and heard covert or blatant racist comments from my White friends and their families, I still clung to some idea of the essential goodness of my country. My parents firmly believed and I absorbed the idea that despite all that my country was perpetrating on some of its citizens and on others around the world, there was a kernel of decency that would eventually prevail. I believed in American exceptionalism as a beacon to the world. That belief has died a slow and painful death. I now recognize that the United States of America was born of violence by Whites towards Black and Brown people, that that violence is continuing, and that I have benefited from it. My identity’s solid foundation has crumbled and I must re-think who I am. Stone Mountain is not just a monument to an immoral and brutal cause, it is part of who I was and it too must crumble.