The Deeper South journey has been for me an exercise in learning some of the stories that have been edited out of my education both in school and at home—stories that time, self-interest, or the indomitable Southern tradition of gussying up has passed over. On rolls of film from the third tour, in 1999, two images recall episodes that turned out to have been more significant than they seemed at the time.
One of the paradoxes of a photograph is that while it preserves a record of a moment in time, it also contains in germ the memory of the memory of an experience—or its lack. A photograph can show what we saw through the lens at a particular moment but it can also reveal what we did not see then (while also holding back from us what we do not see yet). Film photography is, after all, an art of negative imagery, and the experience of returning to old photographs can call back to us the negative spaces in our own memory, the absences that we are only now beginning to fill. I have become especially interested in the ways photographs can record forgetfulness, and can preserve for us the possibility of reminding us of what we once were not able to see.
Revisiting old photographs can be merely an act of nostalgia, but with a little effort it can effect a reorientation of our way of seeing. If we attend only to the literal sense—what a photograph depicts—then we are likely to miss the more interesting ‘spiritual’ senses, such as what a photograph is about, or how it shows us something important about a particular place, the world, and ourselves.
I am not talking about those embarrassing photographs of our 1980s selves in parachute pants that we hope no one ever sees. Memory is always in conflict with oblivion, and the forces of forgetfulness are alive in every person and every epoch. In our day, those forces often take the form of what we now refer to as “erasure.” Throwing out unflattering old pictures may be a mild—and not entirely innocent—form of this. But at a more consequential level, we collectively and personally tend to erase from memory the uncomfortable parts of our own past that do not reflect the kinds of communities or people we wish to be, or the kinds of communities and people we wish we had not been once.
In 1999, John and I drove west from Atlanta for the Mississippi Delta. We made a turn at Natchez, and took a portion of the Natchez Trace Parkway, a two-lane road from Natchez to Nashville that follows the route of an ancient animal trail originally cut by indigenous American bison marching northward to the salt licks near Nashville. By the turn of the nineteenth century, the trail was already well-trodden by native Choctaw and Chickasaw tribes who used it for trading, hunting, and foraging. At milepost 41.5 on the Parkway, a section of the ancient trail survives, worn down by thousands of years of foot traffic and erosion. At this point the trail is protected by natural earthwork walls rising ten feet high on either side, which give this section the name “Sunken Trace.” The place seems to seethe with arcane and possibly fabulous history, and it is as easy to imagine Choctaw passing through these ancient forest paths as it is hobbits.
I do not know if the absence of any mention of hobbits on the sign at the entrance to the Sunken Trace is an act of erasure, but the sign (above) does include one attempt literally to blot out a part of the Trace’s past—or at least the way it is remembered.
The sign preserves a moment of explicit erasure by some well-meaning NPS agent who—bless him or her—tried to undo a racist turn of phrase with a paintbrush. The color does not quite match, because it is never possible perfectly to match up fresh paint with a color that has weathered for eighty years, just as the way history actually unfolds never fully matches the way we wish to remember it. At least someone at some point felt badly enough about that to try and atone for it with a fresh coat of that distinctively Park Service shade of brown. But the effect of the attempted erasure is simply to highlight the egregious locution, to call attention to an act of failed and maybe half-hearted (or underfunded) repentance for lumping the native people of this region in with snakes, mosquitos, and robbers.
It’s easy to to take your distance from this sort of erasure because it is someone else’s doing. But there is another photo on a roll from 1999 that hints at a different kind of erasure, and this time it’s personal.
Many of my ancestors are buried in Westview Cemetery in west Atlanta—a sprawling pastoral site with an incongruously Romanesque chapel at its heart—a part of town that is rich with history and uniquely Atlanta-esque contradictions. I was almost thirty before I ever visited the place where my great-great-uncles, great-grandfather, and great-great grandfather are buried. In 1999 I knew only fragments of stories about them.
Family memory has not passed much down to me. My great-great-grandfather, John Slaughter Candler, was a state supreme court justice in Georgia and the lawyer-in-chief for the Coca-Cola Company. That’s about all I knew in 1999. After visiting Westview for the first time, I learned that he was born on the same day as me, 110 years earlier, and died two days after Pearl Harbor. But that’s it.
A different kind of erasure—of familial neglect or collective senility or disinterest, who knows—has befallen his legacy, which I have only slowly been able to reconstruct. In July 2018, on a trip to Atlanta with my son, Charlie, I saw for the first time the places where some of those ancestors once lived. The passive erasure of personal and familial history that takes place when we do not take care to communicate to ourselves who we are and where we come from has the effect of redacting from history both the unsavory bits and the savory ones. For example, I did not know in 1999 that one hundred years earlier, Judge and Colonel John S. Candler (at the behest of his cousin, the Governor) led a regiment of the state militia on a “peacekeeping” mission to Palmetto, Georgia during the notorious lynching of Sam Hose in Newnan in 1899. I also did not know that he was written off for dead by the New York Times for having had both his legs cut off in a train accident in Decatur in 1883, nor that, two weeks later, he told the Atlanta paper that he attributed his unexpected recovery to abstention from booze and tobacco. I can understand why his involvement in the state’s response to a horrific act of white terrorism would not become a staple at the dinner-table, but that my great-great-grandfather had his legs cut off and lived another nearly 60 years with prosthetic feet? Somehow that never made the family news.
Both of these stories were part of the man without whom I would not be at all, and therefore part of me, in some mysterious way. Their omission from family lore, though, opens for me a particular instance of a general possibility available to us all: to pursue and interrogate the presence and significance within ourselves of our ancestors’ sunken traces.