In February 1985, my mom and I went to the Sunday service at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. My family didn't go to church much except for weddings and funerals, so my mom had a very different point.
"This was Martin Luther King's church," my mom explained. I had learned about Dr. King in school back in Spokane, and I understood that my parents promised my first grade teacher that taking me out of school for a month would involve a rigorous American history education. My mother explained to me that Dr. King was a brave man, and a leader in the civil rights movement, and that unfortunately, racism was still a problem. She explained to me, in a way a first grader could understand, that gospel music is joyful so that it can lift people out of pain.
After church, we visited Dr. King's tomb and eternal flame. I wrote my very first travel journal and said, "it made me feel sad, but good."
My mother was born and raised in Atlanta. My ancestors on my mother's side of the family came to the Georgia colony before the Revolutionary War. They stayed for generations until my mother left the south in 1971. She lived out west for the rest of her life. From the early 2000s to the end of her life, a politically polarized era, she often said, "I could not stand to live there today."
I cannot imagine what it was like for my mother, a southerner, to explain the complexities of race, regional identity and bigotry to her child, whose everyday life was in the relatively color-blind west coast. It was important to both my parents that I learn history: the good, bad and ugly. To me at that age, until the visit to Dr. King's church and tomb, Stone Mountain was a light show, and the Cyclorama was a painting in a room with smelly carpeted stairs. Two years later, my parents took me on long road trips through the South going from battlefield to battlefield. These experiences are how I learned American history, and in particular, the sad chapter called the Civil War. I was taught that the South has lots of wonderful things about it, but an economy that works only with slavery is wrong, that it was terrible that it led to a brutal war, and that we are all better off that the country stayed together. The fields looked so peaceful 120 years later. Growing up in the west, I naively thought the Civil War was behind us.
Living in a place is very different from visiting it. When I moved to Atlanta in 2002 for law school, America was still reeling from the 9/11 attack and gearing up for mideast war. It was politically polarized and seemed to be getting worse every day. In certain neighborhoods, and in certain suburbs, it seemed that WASP-iness was a racial and cultural identity defined by fearing other groups. That was a step further and grosser than a concept of WASP-iness as "default" or "plain vanilla." I was largely unconscious of all this until I actually lived in the South. Driving through Atlanta neighborhoods, I learned to just know how the mostly white residents on a certain block voted, versus the mostly white residents living on the next block over, before the political yard signs went up. There was even one bar where a certain political party could feel "safe." Depending on what vibes and clues I picked up when talking to people, I learned to keep my mouth shut about stuff that few people had considered controversial or counterculture back west, such as a meditation practice. I did not want any single interest of mine to permit ideological people to draw conclusions about any of my political positions, and be forced to support or defend things I hadn't studied, let alone considered. What you thought on one thing or another became a proxy for a litany of other things that had little to do with each other, like whether you break an egg on the little end or the big end. (This caused war between Lilliput and Blefuscu, as you might recall from Gulliver's Travels.) I had law school on my mind instead.
I did not live in the South as a child. I lived there in the early 2000s, and do not live there now. My perspective is just one of many. The tragedy at Charlottesville happened in the South but the causes are not isolated to the South. Traditional American ideals and twisted nationalism are not as clearly divided by a literal Mason-Dixon line as they once were. Since 9/11, fear has perverted certain American ideals and conveniently forgotten others, and permitted bigotry, like kudzu, to grow alongside perfectly good values and beliefs as if it were a welcome plant in the garden. (If you are not familiar with kudzu, think blackberries or morning glory vines, and you'll catch my drift.) The polarization of the last decade and a half -- and especially since the 2016 election -- has emboldened a misguided minority to act like they belong in normal political discourse. Not just here, but in Europe too.
We must not forget history. We must not let our differences on a litany of policy issues keep us so divided that it legitimizes extremists as an "alternative" and lets that "alternative" run amok. We need to support leaders who can bring people together on issues of real substance, inspire the best in us and are capable of earning the respect of those who don't agree with them on everything. I remain hopeful that we get that leader. We do not have that leader currently, so it is up to us to behave as adults, to think before we speak, to actively look for things to respect in each other, to learn history, to examine our biases, to manage our unpleasant emotions in grown up ways, and provide our own moral leadership.