On the afternoon of the eclipse, I laid in a grassy field, staring at the sun in NASA-approved glasses. My dog ran through the tall weeds, snapping at gnats; a friend sat in silence beside me, taking photos. More than a hundred strangers milled about around us. For most of the afternoon, they set up tents along the trail, played guitars, spread out picnics. But just after 2:30 p.m., everyone stopped, mouths gaping, to stare at the sky turning a deep, hazy evening blue as the moon began to cover the sun.
We were about an hour outside of the path of totality, but crickets chirped as it grew darker and the mountain air turned chilly. To the south were the Great Smoky Mountains in Tennessee; to the east, the Blue Ridge in North Carolina. At 4,629 feet, the Appalachian Trail crosses through this “bald” called Max Patch, which was cleared and used for cattle grazing in the 1800s.
Up on the hill, under the sun, I swelled with pride. It felt like America at its best: a bunch of random, diverse human beings sharing meals and space and time and respect on protected, public lands, enjoying a phenomenon that federally-funded scientific research helped us track and understand.
The past two weeks have been disgraceful, heartbreaking, and horrifying. During the violent white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia a woman named Heather Heyer was killed by a car that drove through people protesting the rally. President Trump wavered in his response to violence by neo-Nazis, saying “many sides” were at fault. He then blamed the media for giving white supremacists a platform and causing a political fallout over Charlottesville.
Since then, all eyes have been on the South to see how it responds. One of the most direct courses of action is the push for states to remove Confederate monuments; there are more than 1,500 public Confederate symbols identified in the U.S., according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. Nearly half of the statues and monuments are in Georgia, Virginia and North Carolina. Those numbers, of course, are dwarfed by the amount of other Confederate symbols dotting this region (and the rest of the country, for that matter): tattered flags hanging off houses, bikinis, billboards, and belt buckles, towels and bumper stickers, license plates and tattoos.
Many city leaders across the South quickly reacted, saying they would finally remove Confederate monuments. But the backlash against that progress has been swift. The mayor of Lexington, Kentucky vowed to “relocate” two Confederate monuments, even as Gov. Matt Bevin calls it a “sanitization of history.” Birmingham, Alabama Mayor William Bell, who has fought to remove Confederate monuments for years, ordered a monument covered last week. Now, the Alabama Attorney General’s office is suing him for it. Virginia Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam called for the removal of Confederate monuments, and the Republican Party of Virginia told him he had “turned his back on his own family’s heritage.”
Some places refused to discuss the issue before taking them down: protestors in Durham pulled down a Confederate statue last week. Daytona, Fla. removed plaques honoring the Confederacy; another monument to Confederate soldiers was removed in Gainesville.
Removing these public symbols is a long, arduous process, and if it ever happens on a large scale, it doesn’t change or fix the pervasive racism and racial inequality in this country. Vann R. Newkirk II wrote in the Atlantic: “Even if the South catches fire somehow, and every single memorial to the Confederates is defaced or moved by night to a museum, the white supremacy that those statues celebrated will endure. Racism is not solely the domain of the South, and as redlining, police brutality, and stop-and-frisk policies in the beating hearts of the North, Midwest, and West illustrate, even places without statues of men like Klan founder Nathan Bedford Forrest can carry the torches he lit. Still, it is a beginning. And if something as immovable and immutable as monuments to the Confederacy in the South can come down, maybe America can do more things that I thought were impossible.”
After the eclipse, a large group of us hiked the steep dirt trail down to our cars, laughing in awe at outer space. A little boy used his homemade cereal box eclipse viewer to try to look at the clouds rolling in. The heavy traffic out wouldn’t matter. The long drive home was worth it. But as we rounded the corner to the road, I saw a beat-up red pickup truck, guzzling gas while waiting in line to leave. Two giant Confederate flags hung off its bed, extending so far we had to maneuver out of the way to squeeze past them. Two young white men sat in the cab, proudly gleaming out the open windows. Their American flag bucket hats flapped up and down over their eyes as the truck’s engine sputtered.
It wasn’t necessarily surprising, but it did jolt me from my eclipse-induced daze. I clutched my flimsy glasses, which also had an American flag printed on them. My privileged, temporary version of America was lost again, suffocated by the realities: our racist, sexist, unequal systems; our repeated failures to confront history and learn from it; our self-induced demise from greed. I wound down the dusty mountain roads, reeling, until shadows trickling through the trees reminded me of the sun’s breathtaking beauty. There is so much darkness, but there is also always light. Whether it’s through protecting lands, telling a story, fighting for racial justice, or savoring two minutes of peace on a mountain — we must find ways to find and reconcile that.
Stories worth your time
Photographer Jerry Siegel just published a new book called “Black Belt Color,” and Bitter Southerner displays some of his photos of Alabama’s Black Belt communities: “The book is an indelible reminder that the greatest photography of the South has usually come from native Southerners, who see our region as it is, and not through the lens of stereotypes.”
Nearest Green was a Tennessee slave who taught Jack Daniel how to make whiskey. But at the distillery in Lynchburg, his legacy has been erased from history. The New York Times tells the story of Fawn Weaver, who chased Green’s legacy and persuaded Brown-Forman, the company that owns Jack Daniel’s, to officially recognize Green as its first master distiller.
News flying under the radar
A court ordered FERC to redo its environmental review of Southeast Markets Pipeline Project, which includes Florida’s Sabal Trail Pipeline and two adjoining pipelines, saying the agency failed to fully consider the impact of greenhouse gas emissions.
Local governments in North Carolina were banning solar projects because of public health concerns, so the North Carolina Clean Energy Technology Center did a study to debunk the pervasive myths about toxicity and radiation.
Trey Glenn, former director of the Alabama Department of Environmental Management, has been appointed by EPA head Scott Pruitt to oversee the EPA’s Region 4, which covers the Southeast. Glenn has worked as a business lobbyist in the years since he resigned from Alabama’s government over ethics violations.