I know this blog has been a little heavy on the book promotion these days, but here’s a modern captivity narrative with that most elusive of all endings, a happy one! Drop what you’re doing now and go read Eli Saslow’s “The White Flight of Derek Black” in today’s Washington Post, which describes the disenchantment of one of the young scions of white nationalism over the past eight years. Derek Black, the son of Stormfront founder Don Black and the godson of David Duke, has renounced his former views and apologizes for participating in the racist movement.
What caused this charming, homeschooled, young white supremacist to change his views over the past eight years, from age 19 to 27? In one word: college. Specifically, a liberal arts college, where he majored in history with an emphasis in medieval Europe.
Derek finished high school, enrolled in community college and ran for a seat on the Republican committee, beating an incumbent with 60 percent of the vote. He decided he wanted to study medieval European history, so he applied to New College of Florida, a top-ranked liberal arts school with a strong history program.
“We want you to make history, not just study it,” Don and Chloe [Black, his parents] sometimes reminded him.
New College ranked as one of the most liberal schools in the state — “most pot-friendly, most gay-friendly,” Don explained on the radio — and to some white nationalists, it seemed a bizarre choice. Once, on the air, a friend asked Don whether he worried about sending his son to a “hotbed of multiculturalism,” and Don started to laugh.
“If anyone is going to be influenced here, it will be them,” he said. “Soon enough, the whole faculty and student body are going to know who they have in their midst.”
Go read the whole thing. Print up a copy of this article and show it to anyone who scoffs at the value of studying history, especially those who disparage the value of medieval European history or other fields without a clear-cut connection to the world we live in today. Here’s more:
Most of the other students in his dorm were college freshmen, and as a 21-year-old transfer student, Derek already had a car and a legal ID to buy beer. The qualities that had once made him seem quirky — shoulder-length red hair, the cowboy hat he wore, a passion for medieval re-enactment — made him a good fit for New College, where many of the 800 students were a little bit weird. He forged his own armor and dressed as a knight for Halloween. He watched zombie movies with students from his dorm, a group that included a Peruvian immigrant and an Orthodox Jew.
Maybe they were usurpers, as his father had said, but Derek also kind of liked them, and gradually he went from keeping his convictions quiet to actively disguising them. When another student mentioned that he had been reading about the racist implications of “Lord of the Rings” on a website called Stormfront, Derek pretended he had never heard of it.
Black did a study abroad program in Germany; he learned more about medieval Europe, which was “not. . . a great society of genetically superior people but . . . a technologically backward place that lagged behind Islamic culture. He studied the 8th century to the 12th century, trying to trace back the modern concepts of race and whiteness, but he couldn’t find them anywhere. ‘We basically just invented it,’ he concluded.”
But just as important as the classroom education was the decision of a few of his classmates, when they learned about his white supremacist activism, to engage him. rather than ostracize him:
“Ostracizing Derek won’t accomplish anything,” one student wrote.
“We have a chance to be real activists and actually affect one of the leaders of white supremacy in America. This is not an exaggeration. It would be a victory for civil rights.”
“Who’s clever enough to think of something we can do to change this guy’s mind?”
Go read what happened when his friend Matthew Stevenson, the only Orthodox Jew on campus, invited him to the Shabbat dinner he had been hosting informally for other students. Stevenson and his other guests did something brave and important, and put their liberal education to the test.
How can one be an educator and not feel so happy, hopeful, and proud after reading this story? Honestly, I’m a little verklempt. This is a captivity narrative with a much more hopeful ending than that other modern captivity story, that of Bowe Bergdahl, which I’ve written about here over the past few years since his return to the U.S.
There are some interesting links in all of these captivities, modern and colonial; the foremost one I see is the shared experience of having been raised in a closed, carefully controlled environment (growing up in puritan family inside a garrison, for example; or being homeschooled in modern Idaho or Florida), followed by a rupture with the parents as a result of their exposure to the wider world. Derek Black’s life seems more hopeful now, but his family’s rejection still wounds him.