Farewell column

1-In this column, members of Georgia Humanities and their colleagues take turns discussing Georgia’s history and culture, and other topics that matter. Through different voices, we hear different stories.

By Jamil Zainaldin

A change is coming to our column. At the end of January I will retire from Georgia Humanities after 20 years of service as president, and thus “Jamil’s Georgia” will come to a close.

The men of Easy Company of the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment (aka “Band of Brothers”) underwent intense training at Camp Toccoa in north Georgia.

My time with Georgia Humanities has given me strong memories. I have traveled across the state many times, and visited (it seems) almost every community. The depth of history on this land — including the time before the English settled the colony — is haunting. The rigors of the environment, the hard-scrabble living so many eked out, the periodic boom and busts of the business cycle that made and unmade so many, the great breadth of extremes that separated the fortunate from the least of these, the hundreds and doubtless thousands of small acts of heroism and generosity that marked daily life in small and large communities alike, the remarkable staying and sustaining power of diverse faith traditions — these are all interwoven in Georgia’s DNA down to the present day. To come into tangible contact with the stories, with the remembrances of others, is a great and lasting privilege.

And now to the stories, the work of our column. Georgia is a quite, quite large state (many states within one, it seems) with a long, long history (thousands of years, if we count those before the arrival of Europeans). The contemplation of all contained in that sentence is a never-ending resource for the curious. It is simply not accurate to describe Georgia by telling only one story.

The story of World War II’s Band of Brothers (“Currahee”) begins in Georgia, as does the sisterhood of The Color Purple.

From This Earth (1945) by Lamar Dodd (Morris Museum of Art)

That “righteous dude” James Edward Oglethorpe, who helped found the colony of Georgia, is also the first civic and certainly visionary philanthropist of the New World (at least as I see it!).

The story of the cotton gin that brought great wealth and disaster to the South begins here. (The site of the gin’s modern creation, just a few miles outside of today’s Savannah, has been obliterated by neglect and nature — a telling if also ambiguous end to its founding story, no?)

Charles Lindbergh’s trip across the Atlantic begins, yes, in Georgia.

The NAACP as well as the 20th-century Ku Klux Klan have their origins in Georgia, ironically. On a clear day the respective sites, or “ground zero,” upon which the groups were founded are in sight of each other (downtown Atlanta’s Five Points intersection and Stone Mountain).

President Lyndon B. Johnson hands his pen to Martin Luther King Jr. after signing the Civil Rights Act of 1964

Georgia has inspired the stories of Lewis Grizzard and novelist Toni Morrison.

What can be said of Jimmy Carter, born in a tiny community in one of the state’s most rural of localities and whose reach around the world today is as great as any other living human being’s?

Savannah native Flannery O’Connor is read more today than ever, even getting a shout-out in the current film Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri.

The Georgia story of the Wanderer slave ship symbolizes the darkness of a time and place that is almost unimaginable.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his good friend Lillian Smith, who lived in the mountains of north Georgia, are perhaps the alpha and omega of the living Civil Rights Movement.

The truth is that every place on the planet is an amazing place, if we look and listen and dig. Moments of great consequence as well as moments of passing happenstance are bundled in the stories of all humanity. It is that appreciation that led to our state’s development of the New Georgia Encyclopedia — a 21st-century digital creation and the first of its kind in the nation that has also supplied the foundation for all our work in the column.

How do we sort through these stories, and what are the criteria for selection and reportage from so vast an archive? Stories are temporal — until we find out our lives somehow depend upon them. Homer’s 5,000-year old Odyssey is more widely known and spoken of today than at any other time in its history. What could possibly be the explanation for that? Stories are living vessels that contain the things we need. Perhaps that’s all that can be said.

One thing that must be said, however, is that from the start, this column has been a team effort. It would not have existed without the board and staff of Georgia Humanities, who supported the time for research and writing of the column (a side hustle for the executive director of a nonprofit!), shared the stories with their networks, and occasionally contributed content. Special thanks goes to Kelly Caudle, vice president of communications for Georgia Humanities, who has edited and managed the column since 2013. So many of the stories and ideas explored in this space were inspired by Georgia Humanities programs; projects produced by our partners; conversations with colleagues and friends engaged in creative and historical work and in civic and community initiatives. We have learned together.

“Jamil’s Georgia” may be ending, but keep your eye on this space for more humanities stories about who we are as Georgians, and how we got here.

Kelly Caudle of Georgia Humanities provides editorial assistance for the “Jamil’s Georgia” columns.

Jamil Zainaldin is president of Georgia Humanities, a nonprofit organization working to ensure that humanities and culture remain an integral part of the lives of Georgians. The organization is a cultural leader in the state as well as a pioneer nationally in innovative history and humanities programs. The New Georgia Encyclopedia is a project of Georgia Humanities, in partnership with the Office of the Governor, the University of Georgia Press, and the University System of Georgia/GALILEO. The first state encyclopedia to be conceived and designed exclusively for publication on the Internet, the NGE is an important and authoritative digital resource for all Georgians.

19 replies
  1. Brenda Berry says:

    I have thoroughly enjoyed your column over the years and appreciate so very much your hard work to bring to life these wonderful stories of our past. I do hope someone will pick up the torch and continue to share Georgia’s past with us.Report

    Reply
  2. D. H. Griffin says:

    Jamil, I really enjoy each of your columns, and in fact look forward to them. As a native of Atlanta, there is so much history about our state, and I learned so much as I “travelled” across Georgia with you. Thank you. Your Leadership Atlanta classmate, Daryll Harris GriffinReport

    Reply
  3. Nancy Rogers says:

    Very thoughtful, Jamil. I’m sure that Georgia will miss its Jamil. However, I’m also convinced that you will love being in Georgia and your own interests without traveling all across the state on a daily basis! Keep in touch. NancyReport

    Reply
  4. Sal Brownfield says:

    When I think of the humanities I think of Jamil. Jamil represents the humanities, not only from the point of view of the stories of and about Georgia, but as a man who, in his life, defines the humanities. Thankfully I am lucky enough to spend time learning more from Jamil over coffeeReport

    Reply
  5. Phil Smith says:

    Jamil- In addition to the many wonderful stories you have brought us, you too are a major part of the fabric of our great state. Thank you for your two decades of service to Georgia Humanities and the immeasurable other time you have dedicated to improving our communities and helping people like me become better, more informed and appreciative citizens.Report

    Reply
  6. Eddie Bennett says:

    Always great articles. I learned something from each of them. Thank you for your positive contribution to history education and the humanities in Georgia!Report

    Reply
  7. Frater says:

    Sir, you have made a deep and lasting contribution to Georgia. Your stories have propagated within us a love and honor for Georgia’s past and present, thereby encouraging us to safeguard and nurture its future. We will always be in your debt. Farewell.Report

    Reply
  8. Bill Bolling says:

    Thanks Jamil from all of us who read your columns, follow your travels, and better appreciate our history because of the stories you have shared. Thanks for your vision, hard work, meeting story deadlines, and for keeping us interested in our past which informs our collective future. You will be missed.Report

    Reply
  9. Neil Shorthouse says:

    Jamil – fortunately you believe so much in people and the importance of history – curious about it, studying it, writing of its details and its significances … and done with such love for what’s good that propels us forward, despite the bad that keeps threatening to hold us back, fearing not the telling of neither. We are all grateful to you and the board if Georgia Humanities – placing such high value on what’s important for us to be a better people, and knowing we cannot do that without looking back. Finally, it’s such a joy to have in you brilliance covered so generously by humility. So thankful for our friendship, Looking forward to our next time. With gratitude, NeilReport

    Reply
  10. Gary Moss says:

    So grateful for your leadership and contributions, you’ve been a genuine hero of the humanities. Wishing you a long, glorious, adventerous retirement.Report

    Reply

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