“Visualize a mountain,” the meditation instructor says. “It can be a mountain you know well or one that exists only in your imagination.” Stone Mountain immediately leaps to mind. No, no, not that one; I hate that mountain, I think. I try in vain to conjure another image. Nothing else comes to mind except for the 825-foot granite dome sitting ten miles to the southeast of my home. On clear days, I can easily see its crest during my errands in the neighborhood. Fortunately, I am mostly spared the view of the enormous carving on its north face that pays homage to three Confederate leaders: Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, and Stonewall Jackson. But the crest alone is enough to trigger the feeling of loathing.
I have hated Stone Mountain and its surrounding park since I understood the significance behind the carving, since my first visit inside its Confederate Hall educational center, since I learned that the Klan used to burn crosses on its peak. As a militant teenager, I resentfully visited the park with my family for picnics and reunions. If you happened to be attending the park’s summer laser light show during the early 1990s and were disrupted by a group of Black teenagers and children loudly singing “Mama Africa” during that climactic scene where Robert E. Lee breaks his sword across his knee and a tear rolls down his cheek, that might have been me. My hatred of that park has not always been quiet.
Since moving back to Atlanta in 2012, I have largely avoided the mountain, even though it is now the area’s most prized outdoor recreation space. Twenty years ago, the state outsourced the park’s management to an entertainment group that immediately began trying to diversify its programming and audiences. One of their first events was a Native American Festival and Pow Wow, an annual favorite that returns the mountain to its role as a meeting place and ceremonial center for Native Americans before they were displaced and expelled by white settlers. Later additions included a Gospel Festival and an ecumenical Easter Sunrise service. Its Antebellum Plantation, a replica of a southern plantation opened in the early 1960s, was repurposed to focus upon farming, and Confederate Hall to an ecology education center.
Today, the park estimates that most of its daily visitors are African Americans drawn to its great biking paths, hiking trails, picnic areas, and outdoor recreation areas. But the carving remains, protected by a 2001 state law that prevents its removal or modification. I have found it impossible to ignore the man-made symbol etched onto the mountain and to focus instead upon its natural beauty. “I’m not giving my money to that place,” I say each time that I am tempted to visit one of its attractions. Thus, my son has never seen the laser show, never visited its beach, and never played in the artificial winter wonderland of Snow Mountain. After a church member gifted us with an annual parking pass last Christmas, we finally broke down and went to hike up the mountain a few times. Once, we even let the kid buy some candy from the gift shop after a bit of internal wrangling. Like I said, I have some serious issues with that mountain.
So when the meditation instructor tells us to visualize a mountain, I fight against the image of the large gray boulder. But this, I finally accept, is the mountain that I know: a rock that defies probability, gradually pushing its way up through the earth over millennia, forming the largest piece of exposed granite in the world. It is a living rock, teeming with trees and insects and birds. During the rainy season, tiny clam shrimp and fairy shrimp live in freshwater pools that form in depressions near the mountain’s summit. On clear days, the mountain shouts with the footsteps, laughter, and labored breaths of the hundreds of people who ascend its slope. It is solid and strong and steady, yet not inviolable. Its topography continues to evolve as the forces of nature and the forces of humanity assail it: the winds and rain that erode its surface, the carving and blasting tools that shatter it, the hand rails that penetrate it, the holes from old rails that have been removed and reconfigured. Yes, this is my mountain.
As I stand in mountain pose over the next half hour, I come to realize that I am not so different from the mountain that I have hated for so long. I, too, defy probability: a tenured seminary professor who is just two generations removed from the sharecropper’s farm and five generations removed from slavery; who has survived childhood domestic violence, physical and emotional abuse, and housing instability; who is surviving cancer and fibromyalgia; whose body and psyche bear the wounds of historical and contemporary white supremacy. I am the mountain.
When the exercise comes to a close, I realize that my hostility toward Stone Mountain has closed as well. White supremacy did not create it and it does not get to claim it, no more than it gets to claim me. It is mine now. I am Stone Mountain and Stone Mountain is me.
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Pat M. Kuras says
Dear Ms. Walker-Barnes, Being a New Englander, I was unfamiliar with this mountain. Thank you for your personal essay. I found your essay and writing style clear and very informative. Will look for more of your work.
Susan Ketchin says
Dear Prof. Walker-Barnes, thanks for this insightful personal essay. I too was born and raised in the shadow of Stone Mountain and it loomed in my childhood and adolescence as a white girl as a mixture of embarrassment and knowledge that this mountain was not made by white supremacists, but they had scratched our “heroes” on it, and that it was the site of ancient Indian ceremonies as well as KKK rallies. I also picnicked there many times with church groups and boyfriends which made it take on an entirely different “monumental” feeling for me. I am inspired and grateful for your take on it and for the work y ou and others are doing in gendered-racism consciousness and theology of the land. Hooray for you and others! Gratefully, your sister Atlantan, Susan Ketchin