“When I first tried to contact Derek Black, to write about his radical transformation, I couldn’t find him anywhere.” Thus begins what arguably has to be one of the most profoundly influential books to have been published in recent times. Pulitzer Prize winning author Eli Saslow, in his ground breaking work, “Rising Out of Hatred”, recounts in coruscating detail the astonishing transformation of a once prominent White Nationalist into an avowed anti-racial advocate. Derek Black was all that a rabid ‘alt-right’ devotee could hope, wish and dream for. He had both pedigree and panache on his side. Popularly anointed as the deserving and rightful heir to the entire White Nationalist movement in America, Derek was the son of Chloe and Don Black, and the godson of David Duke, a former KKK Grand Wizard. Don Black, in fact had the infamous distinction of being the founder of the digital world’s largest hate peddling site, Stormfront.org
Mr. Saslow recounts in breathtaking fashion, the unique childhood and upbringing which Derek experienced. As a six-year-old, he was sent out for Halloween dressed as a White Power Ranger, and aided in decorating his bedroom with a Confederate flag. After being pulled out of school by his parents, who feared that his White Nationalism might be sullied by the taint of liberal multiculturalism, Derek was home-schooled by the Blacks on espousing and exacerbating the cause of White superiority. The tenets of discrimination became staple fodder as young Derek accompanies his father to speeches where the scale and scope of the Holocaust was scoffed at as being exaggerated figments of gross imagination. However, the one fuel that kept Derek’s passion incessantly burning was his father’s pet project: Stormfront.org.
In no time, Derek had his own highly popular online show on radio, “The Derek Black Show.” Soaring demand ensured that five evenings each week, he regaled his select audience, first with harmless and plaid stories about his favorite country musicians like Waylon Jennings, Alan Jackson, and Johnny Cash before concentrating on the heavier topic of “the survival and continued dominance of the great white race.” Recommending the writings of the German Holocaust denier Ernst Zundel, Derek also started a children’s version of Stormfront, where he portrayed Martin Luther King Jr as a ‘liar and philanderer.”
Derek’s cocooned existence comes to an inevitable end when he applies, and gets enrolled in New College, Florida. As Mr. Saslow describes in wonderful detail, Derek leads a dual existence in college. A muted, but affable red haired, hat clad, guitar playing youth who loves crooning to Willie Nelson to the unsuspecting, he is also the venom spouting, radio show hosting white supremacist who broadcasting from the confines of his dorm, vilifies Obama as “a radical black activist”, “inherently un-American” and “anti-white culture.” Derek’s paradoxical deception however is put to the test, when he begins dating a Jewish girl named Rose. An avowed anti-Semitist, Derek it torn between contradictory emotions as he struggles to attempt a reconciliation between his espoused beliefs and its brazen violation. Finally, unable to bear the burden of nurturing his twin identities, Derek enters the gymnasium with a 2009 issue of Details magazine, within whose confines could be found a gigantic picture of Derek spread across two glossy pages under the headline “Derek Black: The Great White Hope.” Placing it at the front of the magazine rack, hiding in plain sight near the treadmills and elliptical machines, he walks out of the gym.
Derek’s ‘unraveling’ however comes after a protracted period when Tom McKay, in his final month at New College, and in the process of completing his 150-page thesis on US Paramilitary Groups, stumbles across Derek’s photograph on the Stormfront website.
As may be expected, all hell breaks loose at New College when Derek’s identity stands starkly and brutally exposed. From getting expelled from clubs, barred from attending meetings of the pluralism committee, having his PT Cruiser vandalized and finally moving out of the campus, Derek bears the full brunt of the justifiable wrath of a gob smacked populace. However, even in the midst of such uproar and tumult, are heard voices of sanity and reason. And it is in describing these voices and their transformational impact on Derek, that Mr. Saslow does an exemplary job. Neither concurring nor chastising, he just chronicles. He is the intrepid observer who chooses to remain unobserved. The warp and weft of the book finds its incandescent element while taking its readers, along with Derek, on a path of sheer courage, fortitude and compassion.
Matthew Stevenson, a yarmulke wearing Orthodox Jew (the only one of his kind in College), and Moshe Ashe, had hosted Shabbat ever since Matthew’s first months on campus, and braving public ridicule, they begin inviting Derek, by now a firmly ostracized Pariah, to their Shabbat dinners. This move riles Allison, a roommate of Matthew as she shuts herself in her room when Derek knocks at the door. Ironically, after enrolling herself in a New College course called Stigma and Prejudice, Allison learns about a stage of cognitive development called emerging adulthood, a phase that ranges from about age eighteen to twenty-five. Psychologists believe those years mark a time of transition away from parents and toward greater independence. Armed with this knowledge she strikes a deep friendship with Derek and with the help of both published empirical research works and her own convictions works on Derek to bring about a volte face in his radically racial thinking.
Heated debates, clinical deliberations and deep introspection while walking in Kalemegdan Park and toward the Belgrade Fortress, lit by streetlights and perched high above the Danube River, later, Derek makes the scintillatingly courageous and bold decision of eviscerating his entrenched belief by penning an open letter to the Southern Poverty Law Centre (“SPLC”), an organization deemed by Don Black to be his “most hated enemy.” SPLC, an anti-racist entity had made it its religion to fight internet hate and sitting on top of its pile of targets was Stormfront.org. Derek’s incredulous action sets in motion a roiling cauldron of utter pain and remonstration. Don, Chloe and the whole family is dumbstruck and is poleaxed by Derek’s disclosure. “They said he had thrown away twenty-five years of the family’s hard work. They said he wasn’t the person they thought they knew. They said, after a lifetime spent fighting against the SPLC, he had walked across enemy lines and “surrendered the biggest possible trophy.” They said that maybe he had a “mental disorder” or “character flaws.” They said he was “part of the population that doesn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings so you ignore and bury the real science.” They said this was “nails to the heart.” They said not to come back to West Palm Beach. They said, “You need to make new friends and family.”
As a final act of purification and absolution, David changes his name from David Ronald Black to Ronald David Black. A new persona with a new purpose.
We are living in a world characterized by misinformation, confounded by Internet hate and informed by deep seated racial prejudices. These prejudices are not the sole preserve of the illiterate or the deprived. Prominent politicians and persons holding the highest echelon of power, and who are far removed from the travails of poverty and deprivation, chose to adapt principles of hate and depravity. The American President Donald Trump, terms Mexicans rapists and calls Haiti, El Salvador and African nations as ‘shithole countries.’ Andrew Breitbart, a conservative media mogul, manipulates the tape of a speech by Shirley Sherrod to make it look as if she were racist against whites. Radio host Rush Limbaugh provides a prophylactic warning to his listeners, “In Obama’s America, the white kids now get beat up with the black kids cheering, ‘Yay! Right on.’” Lou Dobbs on CNN has issues with “rampant illegal aliens” who were “overtaking the country”; Newt Gingrich, opines that Spanish is “the language of the ghetto.”
Yet, amazing metamorphosis such as the one undergone by Derek Black suffuses the world with hope and inspiration. In fact, Black’s Twitter Handle reads, “Unexpected advocate for antiracism.” We need many more such unexpected advocates to provide us with the expected comfort. More than anything else we direly need astute chroniclers such as Mr. Saslow to effect pockets of transformation across what now seems to be a restless, impatient, intransigent and insouciant world.