Teaching the Contradictions of Stone Mountain

by Peter Dye

Photo by Aaron coury

Photo by Aaron coury


Before taking a group of international college students on a field trip to a place like Stone Mountain Park, it’s important to give them the proper context. As a teacher of English as a second language, a good bit of that context involves linking language to history and culture, and this week’s vocabulary lesson included some doozies. Confederacy, Klansmen, mini-golf, and laser show aren’t words you’d typically find in any ESL textbook. I wasn’t even sure if I should be teaching some of these words to my students, much less how they would react to them.

For those unfamiliar, Stone Mountain — a stone monadnock that rises 825 feet above the ground east of Atlanta — today is essentially a theme park known for hiking trails, yearly festivals, adventure courses, and perhaps most famously, the 90-foot tall Confederate monument carved prominently into the mountain’s side. As children scurry around the ropes course and families hike upward to see the beautiful views of the Atlanta skyline, the chiseled profiles of Stonewall Jackson, Robert E. Lee, and Jefferson Davis stare off into the distance, with their hats held closely to their hearts as they sit atop majestic horses.

The mountain was known primarily as a granite quarry until the Venable Brothers of Atlanta, whose family owned the mountain at the time, commissioned the carving. The Venables were influential in the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan in the early 1900s, resulting in white hoods and cross burnings being prominent fixtures on and around the mountain for many years. In recent years, Stone Mountain Park has tried to distance itself from its origins. Information around the park readily details how the monument was constructed while being very careful not to focus too closely on the who and the why.

Interestingly enough, the city of Stone Mountain today is one of the most diverse areas of Georgia. The park and the surrounding city have shifted over the years and now have a majority African American population. The park’s proximity to cities like Clarkston, one of the most diverse cities in America thanks to its refugee population, means that you can hear a range of languages from all over the world while walking around the mountain’s trails. The park hosted many events during Atlanta’s 1996 Olympic Games, and the Netflix show “Stranger Things” even filmed a few scenes there. It’s a great place to bring your family for a picnic or to take a walk with your dog. But all the while, those ever-present Confederates stare down on the park’s visitors from atop their horses, and I knew my students were going to have a lot of questions about who they were and why they were carved into the side of a mountain.

I work primarily in higher education, helping international college students polish their academic English skills. My students typically know English well but may need some help applying it to this specific educational context. They will opt into my classes for a semester or two before diving full-time into American college life. I teach them the American English structures of academic essays (they differ from country to country), give them guidance on citing sources for persuasive speeches, and help clarify expressions that don’t translate well, among other things. There is, however, a lot more they need to learn to truly communicate effectively both inside and outside of the classroom. They have to learn the South.

Language learners in any context are trying to acquire grammar, vocabulary, and pronunciation skills as a means to the ultimate end of effectively communicating in a new place. If my students can’t understand their professor’s anecdotes, their RA’s rules, or their Waffle House server’s questions, they’re going to have a tough time adapting. To thrive in the South, there’s a lot to learn.

As students arrive from Egypt, Venezuela, or Korea, they will encounter English they were never exposed to in their language classes back home. It can be helpful to learn, for example, that one (or sometimes both) of the “t”s in Atlanta is not regularly pronounced. One of my Chinese students used to love practicing his Southern pronunciation every chance he could with new students by warmly shouting, “Welcome to A-lan-a!”

Depending on where they learned English, students might also discover that they can discard the word “pop” altogether in favor of “coke.” Contrary to what’s been taught in their grammar books, they may have new friends respond to a request with the fact that they “might could” do something. And, of course, “y’all” is both a common and functional option for pluralizing “you” that they may hear before ordering at a restaurant: “What can I get y’all?”

Beyond just the language, newly arrived students must learn to navigate the culture. How much are you supposed to tip? When and how do you make small talk? Are you supposed to bow, hug, shake hands, kiss, high-five, or fist-bump in this situation? Some of these cultural elements are fun to discuss and compare, while others are more complicated. I once had a Japanese student come out of a souvenir shop in Underground Atlanta to proudly show me and an African American colleague a shirt she had just purchased with an enormous Confederate flag on it. She liked the colors and asked about the design. We laughed it off but then struggled to give the appropriate amount of context to explain why this shirt could cause offense. How do you summarize the entire Civil War and the 150 years since while doing some casual afternoon shopping?

My university had been taking groups of first-semester international students on weekend trips around Atlanta to give them a better sense of the history and culture beyond just campus and their classrooms. We’d been to places like the Center for Civil and Human Rights and Centennial Olympic Park downtown, and it was decided that the next trip would be to Stone Mountain for a little Saturday outdoor field trip. As I started doing the research to give my students any background they would need, I realized we would be walking into a cultural minefield.

My class, in particular, was a vocal and inquisitive bunch with many questions about why Americans do (or did) this or that, so I knew I had to do my research. I only had vague memories myself from childhood of the laser show and the mountain with the men on horseback carved into its side.

According to 18,000 reviews, Stone Mountain Park had a whopping 4.6 out of 5 stars. I decided to check out the 1-star reviews, which often reveal hidden truths. The first came from a local guide:

“Nothing like looking at one of the largest relief carvings in the world which commemorates the leadership of the Confederacy while Kool and the Gang’s ‘Celebrate’ is cranked up to 11. Totally inappropriate setting to view a beautiful work of art in the side of the mountain.”

The next reviewer wrote:

“Robert E. Lee should not be glorified in a state park. The main road to the park has his name. There's a rock monument of him. During the laser show, they depicted him as a saddened general who lost a battle. This is not right.”

And finally:

“Have gone to the Laser Show all my life, since it started in 1983 when I was 6 years old. I went to see it the last day of the season. It absolutely sucks. They have changed it completely and it no longer represents anything the South is about.”

The 1-star reviews went on to complain about Stone Mountain Park and its famous summer laser show; either it was too tied to Georgia’s Confederate past or not tied to it enough. The others mostly complained about the price of parking.

How would my students review the park after our field trip? Would Lin tell her mother in Vietnam that night about the great General Lee memorialized forever in stone? Would my Egyptian students just assume everyone in Georgia is a racist? Would Takumi bring up slavery right off the bat when getting to know his African American classmates? There were so many ways this could go wrong.

The week before our Stone Mountain excursion, I did what I could to prepare my class. We had recently finished a discussion of Chimamanda Adichie's TED Talk “The Danger of a Single Story,” and so I tried to expose them to multiple stories about Stone Mountain, both good and bad. I had half of the class watch a TV commercial for the park that showcased all of its wonderful, family-friendly activities, and events while the other half of the class watched a clip from “11 Alive News” about protesters clashing with Klansmen a few years ago at the park. Both groups of students had to come back together and present their findings to each other. We had a long class discussion about slavery and the Klan as well as laser shows and funnel cakes. Afterward, it seemed most of the students walked away trying to figure out if they were going to a monument to slave owners built by the Ku Klux Klan or a nice park in a diverse community to do some hiking and have a picnic. 

Honestly, I was trying to figure out the same thing myself.

The following Saturday we headed to Stone Mountain with our van full of students from Colombia, Egypt, Italy, Japan, Korea, Nigeria, and Vietnam. Most of the students were from my class, but there were some other study-abroad students and friends of classmates who came along, too. We hiked up the mountain and looked at the scenic views of Atlanta from the top. Some took the cable car down while others walked, and we all met on the big grassy lawn for a picnic in front of the mountain and its iconic monument after an afternoon of activity.

We had stopped by the international farmer’s market on the way, and everyone took out their assorted food to share. We passed around chopsticks and forks and dug into the seaweed wrapped rolls of kimbap, dried mangos, and flakey baklava. We all enjoyed an international potluck while waiting for the most notable part of the Stone Mountain experience to start: The Stone Mountain Laser Show Spectacular in Mountainvision®! I tried to get comfortable, unsure of how my students were going to react.

The laser show, which first began in the early 1980s, is a mesmerizing blur of projected animated characters and colors complemented by fireworks and drones all blasting from and buzzing around the side of the mountain once the sun sets. The “story” of the hour-long spectacle loosely centers around a young boy running through a library, and every book he takes off of the shelf comes to life and segues into the next musical number. One book opens to an animated rendition of “The Devil Went Down to Georgia.” Another book comes alive to recount the triumphs of famous Georgians over the years.

To distance itself from the clear fact that all of this is being projected onto the faces of Confederate generals, a carving paid for by the Klan, the show has been updated over the years in an attempt to pander less to Stone Mountain’s original hooded audience. This has left the current production as a massive, incoherent mess of new elements spliced in and around old ones. One of the animated boy’s library books now opens up to the title of “Girl Power,” with famous women from Georgia, followed by another book that opens to “Hey Ya” by Outkast, and later on, inexplicably, to a sloppy addition of random Star Wars characters accompanied by the Darth Vader theme. It would be hard to follow even if there was a real narrative.

The students sat on the picnic blanket watching this thing and trying to figure out what to make of it. Some stared intently throughout the whole show, while others began to slowly glance down at their smartphones. It was probably for the best. As I saw two students sharing phone screens to giggle about something that was posted on Instagram, the Confederate generals were coming to life, after being outlined and animated by lasers, and were triumphantly riding off into battle while Elvis Presley sang of Dixieland and truth marching on. They glanced back up a few minutes later as a Bruno Mars song played in the next segment. Then, they returned to their phones.

As the laser show finally concluded, all rose for “The Star-Spangled Banner” blasting powerfully from the speakers. An enormous, fluttering red, white, and blue flag was projected across the mountain. In the grand finale, fireworks blasted overhead and “USA” hovered over the flag in bold capital letters until the lights and music finally stopped, and everyone began to gather their blankets and coolers before heading back to the parking lot.

As we walked back to the van, I tried to get an idea of what everyone thought of the show. One student told me the whole thing was very moving. He had stood up with his hand on his heart during the national anthem, reminded of the new life he had found in this country. Another student mentioned he hadn’t stood because he said it didn’t feel right. He argued that in any country, too much patriotism can be a bad thing. Another student said she thought the laser show was too long. They all made pretty good points.

A few weeks before the star-spangled laser show, a student had asked me a question about a few confusing words that have different meanings in English. While trying to find some online vocabulary resources to help him, I stumbled across a new word myself: contranym. A contranym is a single word with two contradictory uses. For example, the verb to weather can mean to stand your ground in the face of trouble (i.e., a storm), but it can also mean to decay over time.

Stone Mountain embodies another contranym: the word bound. This word can mean both going to a place and being held in place, moving toward or being shackled to something. There is a subtle difference in vocabulary, but a significant difference in meaning between Simon & Garfunkel singing about being homeward bound and someone being housebound due to arrest or sickness. In the South, we’re bound for the future, progress, and inclusion; but we remain bound to the past, distortions of it, and exclusion because of it. This leaves us stuck, treading water in the present. Stone Mountain is built by the ghosts of the past, projects the laser-infused chaos and confusion of the present, and hosts the diverse audience of the future.

All these elements oppose each other while remaining inexplicably tethered. Depending on which street you look down in Atlanta, it is both home to the Civil Rights Movement and the historic epicenter for the rebirth of the Klan. Two opposing narratives exist in spite of and because of one another. The South has changed and is changing, but it still has big scars from the past. Some of the biggest ones remain etched in stone.

With the laser show finished, we piled into the van and started making our way back to the city campus. If those Confederate generals really did come to life today as they did in the laser show, I wonder what they would think about the audience gathered around them. A community composed of every color and creed, watching strange lights dance across the mountain, all sharing some food and fun together. While occasionally peeking through the rear-view mirror, I eavesdropped on a few student conversations. Most of the class seemed happy to get some exercise and share a picnic with their friends and didn’t seem to pay much mind to those faces on the mountain. They will likely remain engraved on the granite surface in the years to come but as a reminder of some of the darker parts of Georgia’s past instead of a celebration of it — at least one can hope. With Stone Mountain behind us and the city lights ahead in the distance, I turned onto the interstate and followed the highway signs home, southern-bound.