The captivity and redemption of Derek Black, or, the power of education and engagement

Derek Black, photo by Matt McClain in the Washington Post, October 16, 2016

Derek Black, photo by Matt McClain in the Washington Post, October 16, 2016

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.

24 thoughts on “The captivity and redemption of Derek Black, or, the power of education and engagement

  1. Interesting! Where did he go to graduate school? In the “west?” Might have missed it, as I somewhat skimmed the article. My first, or at the latest, second, history prof. as an undergraduate at an Ohio SLAC soon left for a job at the New College, and he is now emeritus there He was good. Interested in the New Left diplomatic history that was blossoming at the time. Interested in getting published in a faculty that was very good at what it did, in the classroom, but where scholarly publishing was not a central priority. I was just thinking about the guy today, actually, while wandering around town looking for a newspaper that had anything at all to report about national politics. A senior professor at my old school had marveled in class at how enthusiastic his young colleague was about getting feedback about drafts and about research issues. I could see a place like that (New College) having that sort of a galvanic effect on a student ideologue of the opposite stripe. It would/will be interesting, however, to see how stable, or dynamic, or differently dynamic, the conversion proves to be over time.

    I looked up at an AHA panel that I was at some years ago and discovered that I was sitting in the audience right next to my old prof. We made some small conversation. The guy was, in truth, pretty dry and dullish in front of a class, but that was no drawback in my mind, then or now in remembering it. I wasn’t there to be “engaged.” Knowledge in itself and of itself was the engager, and I quickly learned that it came in all sorts of protoplasmic packages from the charismatic to the phlegmatic. If we had done evaluations then, the guy would probably have been run out, as opposed to having “gotten out.”

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I guess, taking the really long view, redemption has to be catching. Otherwise why wouldn’t we still be rancid Paleolithic tribalists?

    But, yes, it’d be nice if it happened way more often in the short dureé. Great to see this.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. c.f., in this regard, Charles B. Dew, “The Unmaking of a Racist,” in the October 21 _Chronicle of Higher Education_, Chronicle Review, “Observer,” back page, about a possibly-somewhat-similar transition, a very long generation ago, at Williams College. The process in this instance was the experience of a self-described “Confederate youth” from Florida, living in the north, and studying Southern history.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think I heard about that last year on This American Life, or something like that–seemed like it was a radio documentary.

      And YES to yay for medieval history!


  4. I would be very interested in reading his views on Trump appointing Steve Bannon and on the election in general. Would you be willing to contact him or know of anyone that could? In the political climate, his views would be invaluable to those trying to figure out how much racism is involved and what we can do about it.


    • Hi Monica–I don’t have any contact with Black outside of having read that WaPo article. But you might try Tweeting the author of the piece, Eli Saslow–I wonder if he’s already been in touch with Black to find out?


  5. I’ve been mulling over this story since I read Derek’s article in the NYT on Sunday. One of my friends – chair of the English Dept. at Palm Beach State College – told me that she taught Derek in an Honors English class before he went to New College. She said that he was a thoughtful student, intelligent. That a linguistic professor had been a big influence on his decision to go to New College. But that basically he was self-directed. He had trusted himself enough to think it out on his own and follow his findings.

    The similarities to the Bergdahl story are intriguing. I understand that Derek has changed his name in order to have a “normal” life in graduate school. I wonder how much he is threatened by white nationalists. I suspect that he will continue to write as Derek Black, though. Perhaps he will influence his family, perhaps not. The estrangement must be very painful for all of them.


    • I’m sure it *is* very painful, but I’m trying to come to terms with the concept of parents who would accept estrangement because a child chooses not to adhere to their extreme & hateful world view. Then again, I find it utterly impossible how anyone could adhere to an extreme & hateful world view in the first place, so maybe casting a non-believer child out isn’t their biggest flaw!

      Fortunately, the world is a much bigger place & full of loving people once you drop the racism & white supremacy. There are way more of us than there are of them.


  6. i know former neo nazis are having success in germany getting people out of it. Would be nice to see that happen in America. Maybe Derek can lead the way but they have to find a way to take care of Mr. and Mrs Joe average and that will help in the long term and btw the ultra left is bad in there own radical way. Maybe some of them can move to the near left. Hopefully soon!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for your comment on this post from a few months back. It’s a wonderful example of what I wrote about in today’s post and will expand on tomorrow: how history might matter, and what historians can do to make it matter more and better.

      History was clearly instrumental in Derek Black’s conversion. Thanks for reminding me of this–I’m sure I’ll link back to this post tomorrow!


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