Atlanta’s Oakland Cemetery: Preview of an Obsession

I’m going to be studying Atlanta’s historic Oakland Cemetery for my Exploring Place: History class. I had planned to do something similar for a couple of my past classes, but ended out choosing other topics that at the time were more in tune with the course material. Now, however, with the class focused on the significance of a historical or community place, research on Oakland was an excellent fit. I’ll be doing a three-part paper, with one part focusing on the cemetery’s history, one part discussing the cemetery’s art, symbolism, and architecture, and one part assessing the meaning of the its role as a significant place in the community.

Until two weekends ago — despite living less than a mile away from the cemetery for just about three years — I had not been on the property, and had only once or twice peeked over the brick walls that surround the entire 48 acres.

The walls themselves are about five feet high, higher in some places or at least so constructed to contour with hills on the property that they seem higher. As soon as you pass through the gate, you can’t help but get the feeling — as the streets, cars, and pedestrians all disappear from view — that you’ve left your whole world outside. And despite the freight trains just beyond the walls, and the occasional Marta train passing through the air nearby, silence follows you in.

As you walk forward, you pass a guardhouse  (I should get a picture of that), and you’re usually greeted if not by a person then at least by the muffled sounds of a radio transmission: a baseball game or a bit of music. You imagine, even though you don’t see it, that it’s an old radio, one of the first ones ever made, and you somehow know exactly what it looks like. By the time you walk a few more feet to the Welcome to Oakland sign, you’re very nearly disoriented: there’s something slightly disconcerting about passing dozens of headstones and a few mausoleums then coming in contact with a welcome sign. Yet that’s one of the most fascinating things about being there: the slightly edgy sense that you’re disconnected from the place as you visit it, and the sense that memory, history, architecture, art, beauty, sadness, and grief are all juxtaposed there — and that once you see it, you can’t possibly forget what you’ve seen.

I really had no idea what to expect, and that’s  what has hit me from attending just one guided tour and from my three solitary visits to take pictures: I had no idea what to expect. I’m not sure I know what else to expect, either; which, in case you haven’t figured it out, is my reason for writing this piece.

On my very first visit there, I paid for my spot on the tour, then sat outside the visitor center, since I was a few minutes early. I turned my head to the left….

… and I suspect that for the rest of my life, this image will coincide with the word “gray” whenever I see it, say it, hear it, or write it. Who is this “Gray” who’s buried beneath this stone’s frozen grief? I have no idea; but believe me, by the time I’m done, I’ll know.

The tour guide took us through nearly the entire property; I had thought it might take an hour or so, but took well over two. By the time we were finished, I had a pretty good sense of the layout of the grounds and about the key historical figures who are buried or entombed there, and left with at least a smattering of knowledge about how the the cemetery fit into Atlanta’s history. The rest of my research will take place around a half-dozen more tours, each of which focuses on one aspect of the cemetery and its history, or on its architecture and symbolism.

It’s hard to imagine what I’ll think of this place by the time I’m done. There’s so much more than any one thing to think about that it’s almost overwhelming, and I feel like I’ll become (if I’ve not already become) immersed in it and obsessed with it. It has objective significance as a place of history; it has subjective significance as a place of emotion and memory. It’s crowded and hard to navigate in some areas; in others — like where 17,000 unidentified people are buried in an area called Potter’s field — the space is so wide and open it leaves you breathless. The sights and scenes are sometimes difficult to photograph, yet at the same time thrilling to photograph — as you watch how the magnolias and oaks, green lawns, stone, and light all interact, changing by the second, becoming especially beautiful as the sun sets and evening folds in. It’s life and death, moving and still.

There’s so much to see, so much to contemplate and wonder about. I still have tons yet to learn, and of course in addition to the tours I have a foot-high stack of books and articles to wade through. So for now, I can only write from what I feel about it, from my reaction to what I’ve seen so far, and from the images I’ve accumulated with my camera and inside my head.

As you might expect from a cemetery in the South, there are monuments to the Civil War, Confederate soldiers, and the Confederacy, such as this one:

And there’s this one, the “Lion of Atlanta” that memorializes the thousands of unknown southern soldiers — and parts of soldiers — buried in one section of the cemetery:

But there are also angels:

and fairies:

and rabbits:

and “castles”:

and sights very beautiful:

and sights that are almost too difficult to contemplate or see…

… all reminding you that — after all — it’s a cemetery … where the living and the dead, where the present and the past, where our love of life and our acceptance of how short it is … all, somehow, converge.

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War as a Spectator Sport (Part One)

In Regarding the Pain of Others, Susan Sontag writes:

To designate a hell is not, of course, to tell us anything about how to extract people from that hell, how to moderate hell’s flames. Still, it seems good in itself to acknowledge … one’s sense of how much suffering caused by human wickedness there is in the world we share with others. Someone who is perennially surprised that depravity exists, who continues to feel disillusioned … when confronted with evidence of what human beings are capable of inflicting in the way of gruesome, hands-on cruelties upon other humans, has not reached moral or psychological adulthood…. No one after a certain age has the right to this kind of innocence, of superficiality, to this degree of ignorance, or amnesia.

Sontag’s essays in Regarding the Pain of Others and On Photography have always impressed me, for — among other reasons — the way she moves effortlessly from the public experience of photography to the way we experience it in our minds, and the connections she makes between the two. I was browsing through both books earlier this evening, in an attempt to better frame some comments on a Vogue Italia photographic essay described by Cooper in Is Rape In Vogue? You Tell Me.

The images in the essay are generating some discussion about — among other things — whether or not they are pornographic, whether or not they glorify rape, whether or not they glorify war, whether or not they have any aesthetic significance.  I could probably pick any of these, choose either side, and make a compelling and passionate case for or against. What I cannot do, however, is rescue the photographs themselves from what they really represent: the exact sort of psychological immaturity, superficiality, and demonstration of ignorance that Sontag is referring to. The photographs — by virtue of their distance from anything that would actually cause us to consider the realities of war — become little more than the kind of cliche aptly illustrated by their worn out title, Make Love, Not War.

It’s not, of course, necessarily true that all photography of war reflect it’s subject realistically, and I wouldn’t make that claim about photography of any subject. But that doesn’t mean choice of subjects doesn’t matter; the photographs are all integrated under one title, showing obviously related themes that were the explicit choices of the artists involved. As with all art, it is the artists’ choices that are fair game for evaluation and critical assessment.

The photographs don’t strike me as being about war at all. If I pitched a tent in my back yard, donned some military fatigues, slapped some mud on my face, and brandished a squirt gun (even a really big squirt gun), you wouldn’t call me a soldier. You might think I was playing soldier, and question my sanity, but that’s about it. The “soldiers” in these photographs seem about as soldierly as me and my tent; in both the actual appearance of the photographs and the way the models are portrayed, they’re only playing soldier too; or not even playing soldier, just playing.

The images of the men, though, are at least not overtly offensive. The men are, in nearly all the photographs, shown as happy, alert, enjoying an experience in the moment. In the women, however, there’s something else, made even more apparent by contrast with the appearance of the men. In photo after photo, the faces of the women suggest one of two conditions: semi-consciousness or pain. From the America’s Top Model mannequin-like pose in image 3, to the distraught and unfocused or visibly pained eyes in almost every other image, the women are most definitely not being portrayed as living the experience in the same way as the men. Disheveled, dirty, confused, and in pain, the women are so succinctly reduced to objects for the amusement of the men that the conclusion that the images glorify rape is a reasonable one, if not a wholly accurate one. At least early-modern attempts to objectify women (as toys for men) usually showed them looking good. Vogue Italia — in treating us to a helping of soft-core, military-style, repetitious, dull, and vaguely annoying porn — can’t be bothered, and instead serves up images that include … yes, you guessed it, mud wrestling….

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History Repeating

A few days ago, cooper left a comment on my post Why We Study History, in which she said:

… it would seem if we truly used history correctly we would not repeat it so often….

Since then, I’ve been carrying that thought around in my head, considering different ways that I might respond. This is not my response.

She’s absolutely right, of course; it’s impossible to study history over any time period longer than twenty seconds, without noticing cycles in human actions and reactions that seem to generate essentially the same social and cultural conditions. Clothing and hairstyles change, and dialogue and postures shift a little, but the broader results often seem about the same. Keeping my generalist hat on for a moment, let me just leave it at this: history repeating itself is as much a cliche as it is an actual historical condition; and as both of those things, it deserves a healthy dose of skeptical analysis.

And that is actually my main point, about all I could explore in this tiny post. When we talk of history repeating itself, we can’t stop there. We can’t really start there, either…. instead, I think we would need to latch on to some specific element of the cycles we’re trying to unravel, and, starting there, pull all sorts of interdisciplinary tricks to search for common threads and relationships among history, science, art, literature, economics, politics, and technology. It’s these things, along with the philosophical ideas that mold them and drive them forward, that define historical cycles. I can’t think of any theoretical reason why history has to repeat itself, or why history, as cooper stated, has to dictate anything … yet it would seem it has and still does, in cycles that are getting shorter and shorter and shorter….

They say the next big thing is here,
That the revolution’s near.
But to me it seems quite clear
That it’s all just a little bit of history repeating.
The newspapers shout:
A new style is growing.
But it doesn’t know
If it’s coming or going.
There is fashion, there is fad.
Some is good, some is bad.
And the joke is rather sad,
That it’s all just a little bit of history repeating.

 

 

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Why We Study History

From one of the texts I am using for my Exploring Place: History class — A Place to Remember: Using History to Build Community by Robert R. Archibald — comes as clear an explanation of why we study history as I’ve ever come across:

[Memory] is an ongoing process through which we create usable narratives that explain the world in which we live, stories that inevitably connect us to each other, history that builds community. The community we create is founded in shared remembrance and grounded in place, especially those places that are conducive to the casual associations necessary for emergence of shared memory…. Places, memories, and stories are inextricably connected, and we cannot create a real community without these elements.

So there is a point to history, for history is a process of facilitating conversations in which we consider what we have done well, what we have done poorly, and how we can do better, conversations that are a prelude to action…. As we face the past, we are also facing the future. — pp. 24-25

Come to think of it, these are some of the reasons why we write (and write blogs!) too.

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Exploring Places

I returned to school a few years ago, and am working on my degree in historical studies. My next class starts in about three weeks, and I’m talking a short vacation before diving back in … so I’m stepping away from the computer and from blogging to spend a little time with my family and to try to wrap up a few projects. An article I came across some time ago — Life Trumps Blogging — is always a good reminder about keeping a balanced perspective.

The upcoming class is called Exploring Place: History, and I’m very much looking forward to it. Here’s an excerpt from the course description:

Thinking of place as a community in a geographical location or physical environment, this interdisciplinary course seeks to offer an opportunity for a place-based approach to history. Explore the local history of the place you live (or some other place of interest), whether you define that place as a neighborhood, a whole village or town or city, a geographical region, or a watershed. Research, for example, a particular topic or period of local history by engaging with historical scholarship, consulting local archives and historical societies and/or interviewing community members who have witnessed local history.

It’s one of the classes that has an independent study component, and classes like that are always my favorite. This one’s so much right up my alley that I couldn’t be more excited for it to get started. I’ll also be considering ways to incorporate elements of the experience into this blog; I’ve never actually done that before, so I guess I’ll be making that up as I go along. Should be a fun time, don’t you think?

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