This week on About South, we are joined by Dr. Calinda Lee, Vice President for Historical Interpretation and Community Partnerships at the Atlanta History Center. We dive headfirst into the topic of our hometown’s complicated past, and how we choose to tell the story of our past to others. Calinda helps us to understand the unique challenges in framing Atlanta history correctly, avoiding the pitfalls of past interpretations, and how we can plan for the future presentation of our historical understanding.
Atlanta is often viewed as a constantly changing city, with its frequent construction, dynamiting, and rebuilding, and is therefore often perceived to be a metropolis without a “real” past, a “real” authenticity, or a “real” identity. Calinda assures us nothing could be further from the truth -- that in fact the very core of Atlanta’s identity lies in its nearly constant regeneration. Atlanta is one of the first cities to market itself to migrants, both national and international, as well as big businesses (and long before Amazon was even dreamed of). This promotion has led to an influx of ideas, cultures, and identities into one space, making Atlanta unique.
However, Calinda reminds us, it is important not to fall into the fallacy of Atlanta exceptionalism. The city still, like all cities in the American southeast, possesses a deeply problematic history rooted in human enslavement, segregation, marginalization, and socioeconomic division. Though a concerted effort has been made in the last 150 years to depict Atlanta through an erroneous and problematic lens, one in which the city (and indeed, the South) seemingly went to war for all reasons imaginable but preserving the practice of human enslavement, the Atlanta History Center currently works to shift this perspective to a historically accurate and more inclusive narrative. Though the reaction has been mostly positive, this change is not without its detractors. Calinda notes that a person’s understanding, or misunderstanding, of their place in history often comes with emotional consequences--and that navigating those feelings of denial, guilt, empathy, and reconciliation is exactly what the Atlanta History Center strives to assist in.
Quoting the late Toni Morrison, Calinda reminds us that there are no partial truths. And as she so profoundly reminds us, there is a powerful hope in seeking the truth. “Truth seeking feels like justice,” she says. “[It] feels like courage.” It speaks well, she points out, that many individuals feel that we now possess the ability, emotionally and intellectually, to take a critical look at our past, and face some long avoided truths. What Atlanta will do with that information has yet to be decided, but that is the space in which that powerful hope lies -- that the truth, even if never really found, is capable of being sought after.