Black and White in Color
Two uncommon personal journals look back on a common history of Georgia's culture war. With Pete Candler and Shirley Thompson.
PETE CANDLER, ALMOST HOME in the Los Angeles Review of Books
SHIRLEY ElLIZABETH THOMPSON, GEORGIA ON MY MIND in The New York Review
Recently I read two remarkable stories, by former Atlantans Pete Candler (Westminster ‘90) and Shirley Elizabeth Thompson, (Westminster ‘88) of their view now on Atlanta. Both retrospective and deeply personal, the stories will be highly resonant to readers familiar with their views, and educational to those who are not.
Not being from even Georgia myself, Atlanta has always been more of an idea than a place for me. I was merely a teen tourist there, only via high schooling at Westminster as an on-campus dorm student, and thereafter gone for good. Since then, for me, it grew as a collage of syndicated correspondence, hiphop coverage, and tv/films.
Starting in on the articles by these writers, one black female and the other white male, I was wondering if their current 20/20 hindsight on their hometown decades ago would feature as much “distance” as my own outsider’s view of Atlanta -- and whether they would describe an old Atlanta more different from each other’s than even from my own.
My original idea about following up on that was to manufacture a live conversation between these two strong writers and eavesdrop. Good readers learn that good writers write about what they already know best, but their talking is just as strongly exploratory. On faith, I expected that no one’s comparison of their two stories could be more direct and interesting than one done directly by the authors themselves. In particular, what would they knowingly decide to compare, if they did?
But that was weeks ago. Not having that opportunity so far, I decided to not wait further, and just start with an open riff myself.
THE MYTHOLOGY OF TRUTH
In the last four years in America, there has been an epidemic of well-dressed idiocy, piled into the always-on mechanisms of marketing’s persuasion, and fed more than ever with unedited yet “curated” content. It turns out not only that anything can be marketed, but that people increasingly prefer the marketing to anything else.
This is very difficult to distinguish from mythology. While mythology is a pretty big arena, within which there is huge variety, all of it has this in common: it delivers a payoff for the practitioner when its use of description becomes accepted as prescription. Mythology wins when people buy in. It fails when people don’t.
That clearly frustrates our ideal desire to operate on the basis of Truth… but it is itself a more truthful view of how we operate -- or even more to the point, co-operate.
The two powerful articles by Candler and Thompson are surely motivated by truthfulness. But what they do is to illustrate, and examine, two views of Mythology and its complex relationship with its collaborators: Privilege, and Power.
In the system that the three elements create, power is always the most tangible, the most “limbic”... and its episodic use or abuse is a real-time experience that in politics we continually trace back to its origins, looking for cause and effect. But myth likely explains why it endures.
What gets (or allows) us to push through myth to a truth?
In these two articles, Candler’s “Almost Home” looks to understand how the old and new views of his past can be reconciled. Thompson’s “Georgia On My Mind” questions whether the things that we see as changes are more real or illusory, given what she remembers and learned about her early youth.
Certainly other interpretations of the articles are available; but in the end, the two memoirs each offer a narrative that reviews what keeps things from coming to attention, and what forces them into attention.
As a result, one major idea surfaced across any differences: that in the mission for change, consciousness raising is not so much a matter of How, but of Why.
Candler talks about his youth in an emotionally gated neighborhood in which he thrived; in retrospect, he identifies a cohesive set of forces that nurtured and maintained what he now sees as a life of white privilege.
In that description, he calls out technology innovation, the media, and educational institutions as prime 20th century American mythmakers. We see that he was bought in without knowing that as such.
But he also maps out the presence of a surrounding, literal, and unending struggle to institutionalize far cruder forms of influence -- namely power -- all during the 1900s, which for him while growing up was history hidden in plain sight. His insensitivity to realities “distant” from his own is an explicit subject of his remembrance.
He notes now the absence of much of the physical evidence of that history -- both his own and the “Other’s”. It’s an erasure due mainly I think to the abruptly capitalist physical emergence of The New South. But in the non-physical and psychic sphere, Candler’s recovering that dwindling history in contemporary context is what I think is called the Reckoning -- an event triggered by major societal events of the recent ten years -- or really mostly five -- that could not escape anyone’s attention.
Candler had real skin in the game; he looked back to see that his own family had very long ago been part of creating what he now rejects. But, he is conflicted. He didn’t, and doesn’t, want to forget what he saw there, that now should be set aside or sent away. But nostalgia is also a form of mythmaking, and Candler is worried about doing it, even though it is part of his telling truth.
GEORGIA ON MY MIND
Thompson’s article comes with a hot sub-title calling out the literal and visceral separations performed by suburbs.
Focusing on them as the sites of a race war, Thompson stages them not only as battlegrounds of head-to-head combat but more so as theaters of war, featuring shifting locations and positions of advantage.
The model of the suburb -- itself mythic yet realized -- is about manicured convenience. In that way, the suburb has only one problem to solve for all comers, even adversaries.
But as a matter of fact the suburbs also make adversaries even more adversarial, creating a bigger problem than the problem they solve.
This is by no means the only dimension of Thompson’s article. But while her story is biographically vivid, and equally as detailed as Candler’s, I took its real distinction from a more impersonal or abstract view.
Thompson’s account erases the line between Power and Property. All of us know how Property nails down Having versus Having Not, and it is a huge manifestation of the primacy of Power in creating privilege.
But Thompson also shows how Mythology is instrumental to Privilege’s strategically paving the way for its own survival, for its continuity beyond its initial creation
In a critique drawn from her story, Privilege institutionally protects itself by creating and marketing an idea that justifies and regenerates its continuation:
“… white Atlantans (and white folks all over the country) transposed the central values of segregation into the tamer and more palatable language of “personal choice,” “tax revolt,” and “property value.” Trumpeting the ideals of individual liberty and local control of resources and services, white residents abandoned Atlanta to an emergent base of Black electoral power and insulated themselves and their tax dollars in lily-white and highly fortified suburban enclaves.”
Truth be told, Privilege traffics in myth.
However, in Thompson’s article, Privilege is also the outcome of a myth created and sustained by incumbent power. People buy into the myth because it grants Privilege. The ongoing role of power here is then also to defend the Privilege, and the contract with participants is not just to have the privilege but to cultivate it.
Power, distinctively, has this presence: when one party has the means to unilaterally change the terms of engagement (that is, inclusion), their advantage is greater than both their beneficiary’s and their adversary’s. Power’s generative myth is typically about who is allowed inclusion, and who is not.
Finally, that is the heart of the matter. Power, both reactively and proactively, is essentially cultural. So, it must be tackled that way.
I see in that pattern not the rule of Law, but the law of Rules.
Law may say that a party can participate in something, but beyond law, the experience of that participation is realized at many different levels of regulated engagement. This is elaborated biographically by Thompson in her recount of not just who had what but especially in terms of how things worked.
What matters, then, is why the rules are the way they are, and why their makers get to make them. That combination is the real face of the “system” in “systemic”; this makes it clear that the system to put in the crosshairs of change is not legal but instead cultural.
Subscribing to an existing myth means accepting the existing powers that be. But the acceptance is mostly an agreement to co-operate.
One way that acceptance is ensured is by force of law (compliance).
But, what if a competing myth develops? Where does it come from? And why?
History repeats itself. In the two articles, although not identically, we get to see the same complex dynamic (let’s call it a hypothesis). They contain a discernable pattern in common about power and privilege.
We might think that privilege implements rules, but it is the other way around; rules implement Privilege.
Privilege is a product of using rules to maintain buy-in of the Myth. It aims to ensure acceptance.
Without Privilege, the Myth loses its value, leaving Power with only force to fall back on.
We know that the myth is fragile when we recognize that its Privilege, which manifests culture, is being weaponized.
But where does this recognition come from? And how dramatic must the signal be? Burning crosses, or micro-aggression?
The “tipping point” -- the onset of major change -- generally arrives when, to enough people within the system, it becomes apparent by experience that the rules actually eliminate the necessary benefit of cooperation -- effectively increasing exclusion.
The main variable is, how many people are enough?
This is why we refer to what’s at stake as “our way of life” -- whether we want to keep it, or get rid of it.
THE WHO CARES TEST
The ongoing transformation of the “culture” of Atlanta, the South, and the US overall, shows electoral politics competing with social convention for control of the levers of power.
Either can win out for a while; they just don’t necessarily wind up, respectively, with the same capability through winning.
On the way, they each breed myths; whichever has the more powerful myth at the time is on the winning track. When one has the upper hand, it tends to control the other for a while. But how do we account for the buy in of one versus the other?
I’m still sorting and speculating on numerous other things that very much distinguish the two articles from each other -- many worthy of Spoiler Alerts.
But both articles exist in the same context. And it is fair to assume that these two consciousness-raising articles are occurring now because for each author, they had to.
What do I mean by that?
Each article appeals to a possible resonance with the reader; a sense of recognition that could bind the reader to the author’s concerns.
More importantly, although the authors are from different worlds, their two articles both signal the end of tolerance of the same rules of old Privilege.
What we're trying to understand ourselves, in reading these two different articles, is what is now being so denied by the rules that in both cases they must be changed.
From here, I leave it to you to find out.
Malcolm Ryder (West ‘72) Contributor