Editor’s note: Be sure to check out Steve Mitchell’s extended interview with Rising Out of Hatred author Eli Saslow.
Most children feel the need to break from their parents’ ideas of the world and stake a claim for themselves. It can be as harmless as a radical haircut at 18, listening to Lil Pump full blast in your room, staying out late to show them who’s boss. For most of us, these minor rebellions fade, leaving us much the same as we were.
For Derek Black, this questioning was a slow cataclysm which consumed him over the course of years. Eli Saslow’s Rising Out of Hatred: The Awakening of a Former White Nationalist (Doubleday, $26.95) is the story of that personal apocalypse.
Saslow is a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist for the Washington Post, whose work exhibits a deep empathy around devastating social issues. He was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 2013, 2016, and 2017. He’s the author of a previous book, Ten Letters: The Stories Americans Tell Their President. Saslow met Derek while working on a story for The Post.
Derek Black grew up in the White Supremacist Movement. His father is Don Black, former KKK Grand Wizard and the man who started Stormfront, once the largest White Supremacist, Neo-Nazi website in the world. Don spent time in prison for attempting to overthrow the island of Dominica in order to establish a white paradise. Derek’s godfather is David Duke, also a former Grand Wizard and the first real White Supremacist political figure of the modern era.
Derek was homeschooled, raised to believe that white people are genetically superior and that this is a scientifically proven fact. He was taught that Jewish cabals control the finances of the world. He was taught that liberal policies are bringing about a ‘white genocide.’ He attended White Supremacist rallies with his father, becoming a speaker on the circuit at a young age. For Derek, speaking at these gatherings was ‘like speaking at a family reunion.’
He was intelligent and inquisitive. At the age of 10, he built and managed his own Stormfront website, Stormfront.org for kids. While still in his teens, he created Stormfront Radio, a 24-hour streaming radio service where he hosted his own show. Derek Black was the Great Hope of the Movement. He was a student of history; articulate, soft spoken, well-reasoned. The tenets of White Supremacy were so well established in him that they were never questioned. For him, they weren’t rooted in hate, but in science and history. Derek Black didn’t hate anyone.
Derek had grown up in a certain kind of world and that world had made him who he was. When he went away to college, that world remained solidly in place. He attended classes, specializing in history. He did well. All the while he was calling in to his daily two-hour White Supremacist radio show. Then, in the spring of 2011, Derek was outed on the college chat board.
Most of Eli Saslow’s fascinating book takes place after Derek has been outed, though he seamlessly weaves in Derek and Don’s past along with a history of the contemporary White Supremacist movement. This is a book concerned with the slow and agonizing transformation of a man who was taught an ideology he must now re-assess piece by piece. At stake is his entire history and his relationship with everyone he has ever known.
Derek’s questioning and transformation occurs, in part, because he was raised in a loving family where he was taught to question everything and make his own decisions, and in part because he was lodged between the twin poles of our culture’s conversation about how to deal with hate groups: shun and confront them or engage them in dialogue? For Derek, both were necessary. Saslow talks with those who shunned Derek and those who remained in constant conversation with him, including Allison, a fellow student who takes classes to ‘weaponize’ herself for their ongoing discussions.
Eli Saslow has immersed himself deeply in Derek’s story, spending time with every major player, sorting through thousands of emails, chat room logs, and radio show transcripts, yet the story doesn’t read as reportage, but more as a novel about a man facing his early life, forcing himself to make impossible choices.
Neither Saslow, nor Derek himself, let Derek off the hook. This is not a story which flows toward a comfortable and easily redemptive arc. Derek is very aware that anything he might do now—public appearances to renounce White Supremacy, op-eds in the New York Times—cannot fully offset the pain, and possible violence, he was party to in his early life.
It is in confronting this uneasy revelation that Derek and Rising Out of Hatred itself addresses a very real moment in our American Present and, while not providing easy answers, tentatively suggests a direction forward.
Steve Mitchell is the author of Cloud Diary, a novel, and The Naming of Ghosts, a collection of short stories. He is co-owner of Scuppernong Books in Greensboro, NC. You can find him at www.authorstevemitchell.com