More specifically, one of my readers recently asked the following: “[W]hat exactly is your end-goal/interest in how Confederate commemoration evolves and is acknowledged?” It’s a fair question. My response to it may help some people better understand how a boy from the beaches of Atlantic City, New Jersey ended up with an interest in the subject of the Civil War and its remembrance/commemoration. The answer can be broken up into two sections; the first has to do with where I was raised while the second comes down to a deep philosophic interest of mine.
As I mentioned I am from Southern New Jersey. My hometown is Ventnor, which is located on an island and is surrounded by a bay on one side and the Atlantic Ocean on the other. On the northern end is Atlantic City itself while the southern portion includes the small towns of Ventnor, Margate, and Longport. My childhood was filled with the staples of beach activities and a healthy dose of competitive sports. I had excellent schools through the 8th grade even if my performance was less than stellar. That final year of Middle School, however, was filled with a bit of anxiety, especially as my friends and I approached graduation. We all knew that next year would be a much larger school in Atlantic City itself. I had seen the imposing structure – situated between Atlantic and Pacific Avenues – many times before on trips with friends and family to the amusement piers and boardwalk arcades. The problem wasn’t the size of the building, but the students that I would have to interact with. Up to this point my classmates had been overwhelmingly white. On the other hand, Atlantic City was and still is predominantly black. In fact, the school itself functioned (it was demolished some years ago to make room for a parking lot) as a fault line; as you moved a few blocks south of the school the community gradually turned white so that by the time you reached my town of Ventnor it was all white. Rarely did we see blacks walking the streets and if we did I imagine we looked on them as a curiosity and even, perhaps, with just a little concern.
My introduction to a black community in Atlantic City took place during my 8th grade year as a member of the basketball team. We played a team from Atlantic City and lost by 40 points. Part of the problem was that no one expected to win given our attitudes about blacks and basketball; simply put, we all knew they were necessarily stronger, faster, and much more agile. But what stands out for me and what I will never forget is what happened as the bus pulled away. Keep in mind that our coach was also the bus driver. As we pulled away one of my friends shouted out the window, “Nigger”. Within a few seconds the entire bus, including the cheerleaders, were shouting out racial insults at the crowd. I am proud to say that I was ashamed and embarrassed. What I remember is crouching down in my seat, but in doing so I noticed our coach laughing hysterically as he drove the bus slowly down the street. Once we turned the corner everyone quieted down and that was pretty much the end of it. I have no idea why that experience has stayed with me for so long, but I am certain that it has helped to shape my understanding of race relations on some level.
That experience stands in sharp contrast with my high school experience. I remember being warned not to use the Men’s Room without being accompanied by a friend or staying away from certain sections from the basement level. I’m sure that there was a little anxiety those first few days of high school, but what I remember more than anything else were the friendships that eventually ensued from the classroom to the marching band to the cross-country team. I don’t mean to paint a glowing picture of high school, but I ended up having the most problems with a white Anti-Semite who actually used to push me around in class and in full view of at least one teacher. I don’t remember one racial incident during my four years of high school. In fact, I remember cutting school and heading down to the beach or sneaking into the closest casino floor with just as many black friends.
My point for now is that I didn’t need to travel to Birmingham, Alabama to learn first hand about the problem of race in America. I learned it in my own backyard. I still have trouble getting my hands around the racial configuration of the small island where I grew up. Even to this day, and with all of the changes that have taken place on the island, I can’t help but perceive it through the lens of history and race. In recent years I’ve read quite a bit about the history of the place, including Bryant Simon’s Boardwalk of Dreams: Atlantic City and the Fate of Urban America (Oxford University Press, 2006), which has helped me to place the history of the city within the broader narrative of race in the North.
My interest in the South and, more specifically, the Confederacy is a natural extension of my earliest perceptions of race and prejudice. It comes down to a fascination with the way in which our perceptions of race shape how we choose to live and interact with one another.