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'The Klansman's Son' becomes antiracist: How R. Derek Black unlearned a white nationalist upbringing

The cover of "The Klansman's Son" and author J. Derek Black. (Courtesy of Abrams Press and Torstein Olav Eriksen)
The cover of "The Klansman's Son" and author J. Derek Black. (Courtesy of Abrams Press and Torstein Olav Eriksen)

As a child, R. Derek Black actively promoted white nationalism. It was the family legacy; their father was a former grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan.

But when Black attended college, they met individuals who were not only appalled by that ideology but were willing to work with them to help change those views. Black eventually renounced white nationalism and now works as an anti-racist.

Their memoir “The Klansman’s Son: My Journey from White Nationalism to Anti-Racism” is out next week, and they join host Robin Young.

Book excerpt: ‘The Klansman’s Son: My Journey from White Nationalism to Anti-Racism’

By R. Derek Black\

MY DECADE OF POLITICAL ACTIVISM on behalf of White nationalism began in October 1999, when I was ten. I gave my first public interview to the salacious daytime talk show The Jenny Jones Show. It was a trip of firsts: one of the first times I left my home state of Florida; my first trip to Chicago; and my first time in the North at all. It was the first time I rode in a limo, when they picked us up and dropped us off at our hotel. At that hotel, on the morning before we headed to the studio for filming, I got to order my first pay-per-view movie (the remake of The Mummy with Brendan Fraser and Rachel Weisz). At the studio, it was my first experience in a greenroom. It was my first time in the public eye, my first time out front, and my first time claiming publicly my intention to lead White nationalism into its next generation.

The experience was genuinely fun. It was also terrifying, and it taught me terrible lessons.

The Jenny Jones Show was a nationally syndicated daytime talk show filmed in the same studios in the NBC Tower in Chicago as its rival The Jerry Springer Show. Jenny and Jerry—and Geraldo and Maury and others like them—often brought on unsophisticated guests to face a shouting and brawling live audience, to great commercial success; The Jerry Springer Show, by far the leader of the genre, ended that season with ratings just behind Oprah.

The episode they invited me and my dad for was titled “Hateful Websites on the Internet” and ran on October 4, 1999. Several years before, David Duke, my dad’s oldest friend, had negotiated to appear on The Jerry Springer Show in a one-on-one interview, away from the jeering audience. Thanks to that negotiation, David was able to speak to Springer’s huge viewership without having to face the demeaning taunts of the studio audience. For my first interview, my dad negotiated something similar, allowing me to give a one-on-one interview offstage. In addition, the producers also offered to pay for a trip to DisneyQuest, the virtual reality amusement park that had recently opened downtown.

My dad asked me over and over, even up to the day of filming, if I was sure I wanted to give the interview. I felt listened to and respected, and I felt like I was fully consenting to my participation. I believed in the cause, as much as a curious child can believe in any ideology, and I was excited to begin advancing it myself. A month earlier, I had created a kids’ page on Stormfront, the website my dad had founded. I had already seen reporters coming to the house to interview my dad, and I’d become familiar with the hostile way they wrote about us as “hateful.”

When we arrived at the set, my dad went out with the other guests, including other White power leaders and two daughters of Fred Phelps, the founder of the Westboro Baptist Church, a group known for picketing the funerals of soldiers and queer people. The studio was built in the middle of a large open room, so the crew, the guests who hadn’t gone on yet, the kids of the Westboro family, and I could stay in the greenroom or walk all around the set. I watched the lighting crew and cinematographers, while I heard the echoes of the angry crowd through the thin prop walls. The crew were friendly and asked me if I needed anything while I hung out with them behind the scenes. I refused the makeup artist’s offers several times, because I didn’t think makeup was for boys. I remember her explaining that it wouldn’t be visible, and was only meant to keep the glare of the stage lights from shining off my face. I held firm, committed to upholding my sense of gender norms, and she relented.

When the time for my interview came, the crew turned on fog machines that produced a dramatic cloud around the stool the pro- ducers led me to. I was near the corner of the stage, behind two panels they slid open to reveal me there. Jenny Jones implied my separate interview was a last-minute decision: “He didn’t want to come on the show, and we’ll see, uh, he’s backstage, he is ten years old, his name is Derek. You’ve been listening to us back there, Derek? Okay, you—you want to go out there in the audience? Sit next to your dad? You’re welcome to.”

offstage. In addition, the producers also offered to pay for a trip to DisneyQuest, the virtual reality amusement park that had recently opened downtown.

My dad asked me over and over, even up to the day of filming, if I was sure I wanted to give the interview. I felt listened to and respected, and I felt like I was fully consenting to my participation. I believed in the cause, as much as a curious child can believe in any ideology, and I was excited to begin advancing it myself. A month earlier, I had created a kids’ page on Stormfront, the website my dad had founded. I had already seen reporters coming to the house to interview my dad, and I’d become familiar with the hostile way they wrote about us as “hateful.”

When we arrived at the set, my dad went out with the other guests, including other White power leaders and two daughters of Fred Phelps, the founder of the Westboro Baptist Church, a group known for picketing the funerals of soldiers and queer people. The studio was built in the middle of a large open room, so the crew, the guests who hadn’t gone on yet, the kids of the Westboro family, and I could stay in the greenroom or walk all around the set. I watched the lighting crew and cinematographers, while I heard the echoes of the angry crowd through the thin prop walls. The crew were friendly and asked me if I needed anything while I hung out with them behind the scenes. I refused the makeup artist’s offers several times, because I didn’t think makeup was for boys. I remember her explaining that it wouldn’t be visible, and was only meant to keep the glare of the stage lights from shining off my face. I held firm, committed to upholding my sense of gender norms, and she relented.

When the time for my interview came, the crew turned on fog machines that produced a dramatic cloud around the stool the producers led me to. I was near the corner of the stage, behind two panels they slid open to reveal me there. Jenny Jones implied my separate interview was a last-minute decision: “He didn’t want to come on the show, and we’ll see, uh, he’s backstage, he is ten years old, his name is Derek. You’ve been listening to us back there, Derek? Okay, you—you want to go out there in the audience? Sit next to your dad? You’re welcome to.”

Watching the interview now is an almost unbearably mortifying experience. It feels like I am watching it simultaneously through my eyes both then and now, from two different vantages and two different worlds. I tried to present my family’s cause with as much care and responsibility as I could muster. I had told the pre-show B-roll inter- viewers the night before, “I designed the website for White children. Most people think that my father has taught me to hate other races. He’s just taught me to be proud of my heritage and to be proud of my race. Since I designed my website, I’ve had virtually no problems except for—except for hateful and vile emails.” Jenny asked me how I decided to create the kids’ page of my dad’s website, and I recounted, “There was a newspaper article with another racist kids’ page on— that I saw in the newspaper, and I wanted— wanted to make another one to have other— to have kids have another way of being able to see ideas and other opinions.”

I knew immediately I had messed up by using the word “racist.” My family was strict about messaging, and nothing was more fundamental than their position that “racist” was a word only our enemies used to describe us. Jenny asked me what ideas and opinions I was hoping to send, and I told her, “I’m sending a message to be proud of your her—”—momentarily forgetting the word “heritage”—“history and your ancestry, just to be proud of all the things that your ancestors have done, because the news media and schools never say any of it.”

Finally, Jenny asked me again if I wanted to go out in front of the live audience, and I shook my head with a look of fear. “No,” I responded, “I’ve been hearing all the audience. They boo— they boo when you come on, they boo when you’re talking.” She responded, “You understand why, though?” and I responded, “Yes.” I knew immediately I’d made another messaging mistake. She got up. “I’m going to go back and talk to your dad,” she said, and I tried to add quickly, before she was gone and I lost my chance, “They don’t understand us.”

Looking back now, it’s overwhelming to watch the moment I first plunged into public activism for White nationalism, on behalf of my family and the community that raised me. I remember feeling mature and capable. I had answered affirmatively every time my dad checked in along the way, making sure I wanted to join him on this show. All the years that have cascaded down since then were on display in that moment. Even all this time later, I can’t help being shocked to hear myself slip up and use the forbidden word “racist” in my first-ever interview. When my family gathered back home in Florida to watch the broadcast, they were disappointed to hear it and gave me feedback to remember to be careful not to use the enemy’s wording, but instead to use the word “racialist” to describe our “pro-White” movement. The next decade trained me in how to stay on message. There’s a part of me that still leaps to the fore unbidden when I watch it, wanting to coach that kid through their first interview. Or to tell them not to do it at all.

Once I overcome the twinge from watching my younger self spout talking points of a movement I’ve now spent nearly as much time opposing as I had supporting it, my next feeling is empathy. It’s hard to listen to my younger self call out, “They don’t understand us,” to the back of Jenny Jones as she walked away. I loved my family. I wanted to stand up for them, and that day I felt like I had.

Excerpted from “The Klansman’s Son: My Journey from White Nationalism to Antiracism” by R. Derek Black. Copyright © 2024 by R. Derek Black. Published and reprinted by permission of Abrams Press, an imprint of ABRAMS. All rights reserved.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

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