What Is Your End Goal? (Part 1)

fishingpierMore 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.

To be continued…

20 comments… add one
  • Sherree Tannen Apr 6, 2009 @ 3:50

    I understand, Kevin. I also understood the point you made in the post, and again commend you for making it. I can’t speak for Jim, either, so I will leave it there. My major point was that new readers coming into the conversation may not have an overview, and thus, they lack a frame of reference within which to work. I am not sure how to remedy that, except to suggest that the reader keeps reading. The important thing to remember is, I think, that blogs allow an unprecedented interaction between historians and the public, and that interaction can become a fertile ground for both the exchange of ideas, and for the formation of new ideas.

    • Kevin Levin Apr 6, 2009 @ 3:54


      I agree with you that it is a limitation of the format.

  • Kevin Levin Apr 6, 2009 @ 2:14


    Of course, Jim can speak for himself, but it seems to me part of what is driving him is a concern that my interest in slavery/race in the South is part of a broader attempt to vilify it in comparison with a virtuous north. We’ve gone back and forth on this issue for quite some time and at every point along the way I’ve tried to alleviate these concerns. That I do not assume such a naive distinction was one of the main points in my post..

  • Sherree Tannen Apr 6, 2009 @ 1:04

    I think that Jim’s response has highlighted a problem with blogging history. A reader who is not a historian comes into a conversation that is ongoing, and thus, does not have a frame of reference within which to converse, as do historians who are interacting, and/or readers who follow the blog. Also, just because a man or woman is not a trained historian does not lessen his or her capacity to understand our past, and maybe even understand it better than a historian. So, I think we should be careful in our thinking. Jim has pointed out a much broader frame of reference that does need to be taken into account when studying the history of the Civil War–the history of slavery in western civilization, and how all of the west is culpable not to a small, but to a very large degree. The men who financed a slave ship in England, or profited from slavery in the Northern and Southern US, were no less culpable than the men who actually beat a slave in Mississippi, Virginia, or Alabama. That is not to mitigate responsibility for the legacy of slavery in the South. That is to strive to reach a true understanding of our history. I am from the South. My ancestors are from the South. My ancestors fought on the side of the Confederacy, yet in succeeding generations after the Civil War my ancestors fought for the rights of black men and women (which is not to say that they did anything special, but did what they should have done in the first place) What is the difference in that experience and the experiences of others in the South? In my opinion, the difference is the topic addressed in this blog: how the Civil War was remembered. Robert E Lee was not a hero, nor was he a villain. He was simply a general. Stonewall Jackson was not even a name I knew, until I had to memorize it for a history test. Confederate flags were nowhere to be found in my house, or in my neighborhood. (actually the history emphasized in my area was the history of the Jamestown colony) Drilling a little deeper, it has now become apparent that not all Confederates were happy to be Confederates, and again, that is not to mitigate responsibility. It is to state what is becoming increasingly apparent through the research of others. My point is that the involvement of my family in fighting Jim Crow and working for the rights of black men and women during the civil rights era came from within the culture of the South itself. I wish they had fought for black men and women before the Civil War, but they didn’t. In the end, they did, though, in their actions after the war, and no doubt so did many others who are silent on the subject, or who are lost to history. The writing of the history of the Civil War is a work in progress, as is the writing of the history of our nation, and of western civilization itself. I believe that this will become ever more apparent as the voices of Indigenous men and women become an integral part of American history, rather than a “footnote” to American history, as has been the case in the past. For example, I have three friends who have direct experience of boarding schools in the US and residential schools in Canada. Needless to say, the Carlisle Industrial School in Pennsylvania, which was the prototype for these schools in which Indigenous children were made to “assimilate” into American society, is a place that represents great suffering, and I am not sure that all historians are aware of this, so I would ask those who study this topic or reference it, to consider the point of view of the three people I just mentioned–three people who are three among thousands. I guess you could say that my friends could be considered primary sources on this subject. I bring this up to show how far we still have to go in understanding our history as a nation. Jim is absolutely correct in pointing that out.


    Sorry I went long as well.


    If I offended you in any way, my apologies.

  • Greg Rowe Apr 5, 2009 @ 13:51


    I’ll take it even a step further than Kevin has. He states “My main historical interest is that of the United States, in large, part because this is where I make my home. That historians make decisions on a particular time and region should not come as any surprise.” There are a host of historians in Texas, where I live, whose sole region of interest is the state of Texas. We teach it as a subject in seventh grade here. It’s what I teach.

    While Kevin and other historians choose to narrow their focus, its not because they feel the need to ignore any aspect of history. Recorded human history is between 6,000 and 7,000 years. Academic historians and, in my opinion, any casual student of history who focuses on a particular era or region does so for the intensive study it provides, not because they are under any impression that it is the only part of history that should receive focus. I’ll equate it to medicine. Do you think any less of a doctor because he or she chooses to specialize in cardiac medicine over general practice?

    Experiences in life necessarily influence students and teachers of history, narrowing the focus for a variety of reasons. Kevin has offered us at least one of his reasons for narrowing his focus. I was raised in Texas and trace my roots seven generations in the state. That narrows my focus to Texas history, though I also study the US Constitution, Jacksonian Politics and the Civil War and Reconstruction. Why do I study these specific eras, topics and regions? I’ve briefly explained Texas. I had the fortunate opportunity to take an elective in high school focusing on the Constitution in addition to the regular civics class and I have continued to study the document that, from my observations, many Americans have little actual knowledge. The age of Andrew Jackson solidified the two-party system in this country, and while there are those who believe that it is the bane of our society, I find the balancing effect of multiple viewpoints is probably what has, ultimately, helped us survive an event like the Civil War.

    But why do I choose to study the Civil War? I’ve outlined it on my own blog, so I won’t belabor the point. Suffice it to say, after witnessing events surrounding the dragging death of James Byrd, Jr. in Jasper, Texas in 1998 while a rookie reporter left me with a distinct question of whether Southern gentlemen like Robert E. Lee or Stonewall Jackson were social and political schizophrenics. I went searching for answers. Some I found right away. No one has ever called the character of men like Lee and Jackson, or even Jefferson Davis, into question. They were good men with ideas that were incompatible with a broad definition of equality. Do I believe the nation should have literally split and fought itself over the issue? No, but that’s because we have built into our Consitution a means of peaceful resistance. It’s called an election. That neither side would accept this method of resolving the dispute is a travesty we are still living with today. Other answers were more difficult to wrap my head around. Sure, some Southerners were defending their homeland, but then I ran into Unionists (later discovering I have some in the family tree) and disgruntled Confederates. And that’s only the white Southerners. Basically, I got into a study of the Civil War to try and prove that Lee and Jackson, guys I had long admired, even put on a pedestal, were worthy of the hero worship I had heaped upon them after learning about them in grade school. I just accepted the fact that everybody in the South was a Confederate, except slaves. While it took a man dying and me witnessing the aftermath to begin questioning that and, even then, it took the better part of ten years of study and research to finally come to the conclusion they were just men and men make mistakes and somtimes support the wrong ideas.

    Call the war anything you want, but, in the end, it was a war of ideas and ideas are hard to kill. Look at the 150 years since then and that becomes painfully visible. “These United States” are not exceptional because we are better than everybody else in the world. “The United States” is exceptional because its citizens, even though it has taken a long time and there is still work to be done, learn to be better people as they live through a variety of circumstances, both good and bad.

    And, please, don’t judge historians because they choose to focus or for their reasons for doing so. The fact that they do makes us better students of history because historians have given us a body of literature that looks much deeper than the one-dimensional ideas presented in a survey course or general history text. While I have only recently come to appreciate this in its full impact, I wouldn’t want it any other way.


    I’m sorry this went long.

  • Jim Apr 5, 2009 @ 6:12

    Thanks for the book reference which I should read. I’m not sure what response you were looking for from me regarding your experience; however, one reason I interpret you the way I do could be that I’m no historian and I desire the big picture context which you already possess. So I can see the necessity of a historian having to drill down as far as one can go into a subject. At the same time I fail to understand why you have to be “careful” in describing the motivations of your focus here. And I’m trying to grasp race relations being interpreted through the American South and what often appears to be one-dimensional views of Confederate history.

    • Kevin Levin Apr 5, 2009 @ 6:17


      You are very welcome. I find that the true insights only come on that deep level, but than again, I was trained in analytical philosophy which emphasizes detail. Much of what is out there is one-dimensional. I like to consider this blog as one place where you can find a sustained critique of some of these deeply-ingrained themes. Others, of course, may disagree.

  • Jim Apr 5, 2009 @ 5:28

    Did I miss a meeting or something? I thought I asked a simple straightforward question – sorry if I offended, but I didn’t mean to do so. Re: Bob’s suggestion that I don’t think the CW was over slavery, I will say that I DO think that slavery, i.e. Constitutionally-legal real property was a major part of the issue along with protection from invasion, but only in that slavery was a competing economic model. I also believe that there was moral parity among whites between the American regions regarding race.

    Lastly, unlike Kevin who focuses solely on the South, WHERE I’M STILL SEEKING ANSWERS AS TO WHY, I understand slavery in a global context. Examples include the overwhelming majority of slaves were transported under England’s command, that other nations like Brazil and the Carribean took the vast majority of slaves rather than America, that slavery existed in all regions of America, and that other nations like Brazil again had slavery longer than America did. In light of these truths, I still see an inordinate amount of blame on the Confederacy and the American South for all things slavery. Instead of discussing the issues here, I feel that we are dancing around them many times.

    • Kevin Levin Apr 5, 2009 @ 5:39


      Again, I do not take offense to your comments. I was, however, a bit surprised at how little you had to say in response to my post. I am trying to be as honest and as careful as I can in responding to your question re: my interest in the Civil War.

      Of course, slavery must be understood on a global level. That said, why are you surprised that someone would focus on one aspect of it. My main historical interest is that of the United States, in large, part because this is where I make my home. That historians make decisions on a particular time and region should not come as any surprise. I personally find that it takes a great deal of time and effort to come to any serious understand of a subject w/o making those kinds of decisions. You are the one who keeps coming back to the “blame” game. My interest in the history of slavery in this country has absolutely nothing to do with blaming or vindicating anything. History for me is a tool to help to better understand the present and my place in it.

      David Brion Davis’s history of world survey is well worth your time if you have not already read it: Inhuman Bondage: The Rise and Fall of Slavery in the New World (Oxford University Press, 2008): http://www.amazon.com/Inhuman-Bondage-Rise-Slavery-World/dp/0195339444/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1238940535&sr=8-1

  • Sherree Tannen Apr 4, 2009 @ 3:07

    “He looked at me and said ‘I can do that but you can’t'”. I told him that was a slave word and I did not understand why it would come out of the mouth of a black man. ”

    It has to do with intent. My mother’s best friend, who was black, used to refer endearingly to my mother in a phrase that included that word. And I have heard the word used often by the black community in informal conversation as black men and women talked about themselves, to each other, and to my mother and father at our house. On the other hand, a friend of mine who still carries deep scars from the days of integration told me that when she was in history class the teacher, who was a woman, loved to use the word “Negress”. This word is no longer used and should not be. In class, as my friend tried to disappear into that sea of white faces, you can just imagine how she felt as the teacher used the word with ill intent. We, the renegade white and black students, leveled the playing field, though, by calling this teacher “bluebeard”, because of the teacher’s moustache.

    As one of your fellow bloggers has noted, Kevin, the renegade South and renegade Southerners of all races have always been here. Glad you could join us. Also, this post, and the post that prompted it, bring up fascinating subjects that deserve attention, in my opinion. For example: how did racism develop differently in the North and the South, and why? How is that connected, or not connected, to the legacy of slavery, and the way in which the Civil War was remembered in both regions? The North was supposed to be the promised land for freed slaves, but it wasn’t. Why? Neither, of course, was the South. But we know why on that one. (Does this really need to be said? Are there actually people who don’t know this?!?) I lived for five years in a major Northern city. I know the North is not the promised land. You do, too, and so do many others. Thanks again for having the courage to post this experience. Racism never stopped at the Mason Dixon line. It had its most brutal expression below it for quite a long time, though. Anyone who says it didn’t is either ill informed or unable to face the facts.

  • Richard Apr 3, 2009 @ 10:32

    When I was in my mid-20s I remember going to Cheraw, SC to help remodel a retail store. I knew the store manager well, he was black. I was standing beside him when he called one of his employees the “N” word. He looked at me and said “I can do that but you can’t”. I told him that was a slave word and I did not understand why it would come out of the mouth of a black man. My point in telling this story is that slavery has left deep scars in both the minds of blacks and whites. If you are interrested in Race the South is the place to look, thats where the most black/white interaction occured.

  • Sherree Tannen Apr 3, 2009 @ 8:48

    “Even if we remove the racial component, the ‘racists’ would still find some difference to make as leverage to force their will upon others (thus regardless or race, creed or color). ”

    This is so true. It is also the fault line along which racism meets sexism. The key component is the quest for power over another. In fact, many feminist thinkers have suggested that sexism is actually the root “nerve” of racism and classism.

  • Bob Pollock Apr 3, 2009 @ 7:24


    Jim can correct me if I am wrong, but in reading his comments on your various posts, I don’t think he understands “the jump from your experience in NJ to the Confederacy” because he does not believe the Civil War had anything to do with race relations, i.e. slavery.

    • Kevin Levin Apr 3, 2009 @ 8:47


      That is exactly why I am interested in the history of the South and the Confederacy. In fact, my ongoing research on the Crater is as much about the history of race relations in this country as it is the story of a battle. One of the points I was trying to make is that because I focus on the South I am not implying anything about the moral character of any other region of this country. As to your suspicions, I suspect that you are right.

  • Craig the Marker Hunter Apr 3, 2009 @ 6:42

    I can’t say I recall the first time I heard the “n-word.” Growing up in the South of the 1970’s, I was told strictly that the word was off limits, and that proper people just do not use the word. So when I heard it used by people, the context was clearly those using it were not “proper” or “respectable” and considered “small-minded.”

    I can say once I in my youth I had a confrontation with an individual over the word. I was working one summer on a neighbor’s farm. It was watermelon season. Let’s just say those melons don’t get to the supermarket by walking themselves. It’s hard work, and I was getting paid the standard minimum wage, harvesting them off the vine. (But for a 16 year old who needed gas money, that was a good job!)

    About mid day, the team I was on took a break for lunch. We all clustered around an end row tree, resting. The team was typical for those doing “field work” from my experience – racial makeup across the board, just one thing in common, we were on the bottom heap economically speaking.

    One of the employer’s overseers pulled up in a truck and said, “You n—-s need to get back to work!” I didn’t know what to say. Now one might say I’m “caucasian” but I’ve got enough native ancestors I guess to have a darker complexion. Amplifying that was a farmer’s tan built up over the last four weeks. But surely, I thought, he wasn’t talking directly at me. So I looked back at the overseer with a curious look. And he made his point clear, pointing right at me, “Yes I said that to you, white boy!”

    Needless to say, those were fighting words. Two large co-workers (both black as I recall) held me back. While no blows were exchanged, I distinctly recall being threatened over my employment. So I just let it ride for now. Days later, the farm owner came by and asked about things. I told him point blank that my family had worked for him at least for forty years, and they had good things to say about him. But if his overseers were going to act that way toward anybody, I’d have to find other work. With that, I was let go.

    Years later, reflecting on it, the incident underlines one of the base “proximate causes” of what we identify today as racism. I see it more so as a tool for imposing one’s will upon another. The skin color may offer a discriminator, but the discrimination need not be tied to one’s ethnic background. Even if we remove the racial component, the “racists” would still find some difference to make as leverage to force their will upon others (thus regardless or race, creed or color).

    Maybe saying it more plainly, those rearing me were right, the “n-word” is indeed something used by improper, small minded people, who lack the ability to articulate their suggestions, recommendations, desires, or view of the word.

  • Jim Apr 3, 2009 @ 4:28

    I’m trying to understand the jump from your experience in NJ to the Confederacy. Maybe that will be answered in Part 2? As far as your experience, I consider that rather tame though unfortunate.

    • Kevin Levin Apr 3, 2009 @ 4:31

      If you expect me to give you a Sparks Note version than you will be sorely disappointed. Of all the things to say in response to this post, you decide to judge me. Well, that says quite a bit about you.

  • Kevin Levin Apr 2, 2009 @ 13:29

    Thanks so much for sharing your own personal experiences.

  • Richard Apr 2, 2009 @ 12:43

    I share your interest in race and have strived to understand why people behave the way they do. My earliest memories regarding race go back to 1969 when I was 5. I was staying in my grandfathers trailer in New Bern NC. Outside there were several black men under the street light drinking and shouting. My grandfather took his shotgun and blew out the streetlight over their heads. I also remember the first time I was called “white boy”. My father would eventually become a deacon in the Catholic Church (unusual for a southerner) and he worked in the slums of Charleston teaching black folks how to read. Its a strange and complex world.

  • Sherree Tannen Apr 2, 2009 @ 6:22

    Thank you so very much for sharing this, Kevin. I am sending you what could be called a companion piece to this post from south of the Mason Dixon line. The piece is an essay that I wrote that the Roanoke Times published in the 1990s. If it is too long for the comment section, that is not a problem. At least you will have it. Thank you again, Kevin, for this post and for maintaining this blog.

    I remember clearly the first time I heard the “N” word. I was nine years old, growing up in the mountains of Virginia, and it was 1964.
    “Why don’t you ask Howard Wayne why his skin is so funny?” the destroyer of my innocence prompted. Why don’t you call him a “nigger” and see what he does?
    I did not do as told. Even in my nine year old mind I knew that this was wrong. I knew it was wrong because I had been taught it was wrong.
    But that day I learned the power of words, saw their power in Howard Wayne’s face as the racial epithets were hurled at him, like arrows to the heart, by my cohort. I felt shame. Deep, deep shame.
    For you see, Howard Wayne was my friend. We played hide and go seek together. We ate ice cream together. And his sister, Margaret Ann, was my mother’s friend. And his mother, Miss Inez, and my grandmother had a bond of love and respect that transcended law, culture, custom, and the racial slurs of small minds.
    The African American community in my town lived on Railroad Avenue. As the name implies, the community literally lived near the railroad tracks. But the remarkable thing was that white people lived there, too–for a couple of centuries.
    The community was founded by a group of freed slaves. Houses were built beyond the railroad tracks, along the river. For generations, white and black ate, worked, and worshipped together in the day-in, day-out business of living that truly dissolves racial barriers.
    In the late 1970s, a flood forced the relocation of the entire community. Homes were demolished and all of the families moved away. Today, a park stands where the community once lived. The only building remaining is the old church.
    This past fall a reunion was held. I received an invitation miles and light years away in my new home of Florida. I had not maintained close contact with those forgotten people of the past. In the intervening years much had happened; The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination; the resurgence of Neo-Nazism; the politics of hatred spawned by Louis Farrakhan; the lost hopes and dreams of our country; and the deaths of my grandmother and mother.
    I drove ten hours. Drove home. And in that long drive, I remembered. They had all given me so much. Miss Inez had cared for me as a baby. Her brave black face was a part of my very being. My grandmother had taught me compassion. She had worked tirelessly for years to outwit Jim Crow laws in the Townhouse Café, her restaurant, and in a nursing home that she later owned and ran. And most important, my mother had taught me not just to say, but to do, in her lifelong, untiring work for the disadvantaged. Together, as a community, the residents of Railroad Avenue had given all of us who had the privilege to come of age under their tutelage the most precious gift of all: freedom from prejudice, bigotry, and hatred.
    The day of the reunion arrived. I approached in apprehension. I had always gone to the black community with my mother. This time it was up to me. Would I be accepted?
    I did not see anyone that I recognized. We, members of a younger generation, eyed each other suspiciously through the broken dreams and promises of several decades.
    Finally, in the distance, I spotted an old face. I approached the old woman timidly, my nine year old niece holding my arm.
    “Who are you?” the ancient voice asked from beneath a wide-brimmed straw hat that partially covered the face beneath it. I noticed how the woman’s skin was smooth, dark, and beautiful.
    “I am Mattie Blevins’ granddaughter, Maxine Rogers’ daughter,” I replied, trembling, fearing that two hundred years of our town’s history might vanish with her next word.
    “Then you’re a friend of mine,” Miss Della smiled, hugging me, “You’re a friend of mine.”
    The next morning we all attended worship service in the old church that had been largely founded by a freed slave, George Washington Lomans. Mr. Lomans’ aging daughter, Miss Floreda, led parts of the service. A young minister spoke with wisdom and courage against the voices of hatred in both the white and black communities. We sang together. We held hands. We prayed together.
    On the way home, my niece rode in silence, the experience taking form in her young mind. “I like the way we sang ‘Amazing Grace,'” she said, “I really do.”
    She was looking out of the window, watching the moving scenery. “You know what you must do, Mattie?” I asked, taking her small hand in mine. “If you ever hear the word ‘nigger’, you must tell the person who says it that it is wrong. Very, very wrong. And that they must not say it.”
    My niece pulled her hand away from mine, and turned to me suddenly with a puzzled look on her face, the word conspicuously absent in her upbringing by my sister and her husband.
    “What does that mean?” she asked, “Is it a swear word like Mommy tells me not to say?”
    I threw my head back and laughed with absolute joy. “Yes, sweetheart,” I smiled, saving the longer explanation that must be made until she was old enough to understand, “It is a swear word. A very bad swear word.”
    At that moment the lives of my grandmother, of Miss Inez and Miss Floreda, and of all of the residents of the Railroad Avenues in this land assumed meaning.
    I am proud. I am proud of my family. I am proud of my town. I am proud of this torn and turbulent nation that allows forgiveness and hope.
    It happened one Sunday morning in a small town in the mountains of Virginia. It could happen in your town, too.

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