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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Reading the Northwest: How a white nationalist turned against the movement

Eli Saslow (Joanna Ceciliani / Joanna Ceciliani)
By Martin Wolk For The Spokesman-Review

Portland-based author Eli Saslow knew he wanted to write about former white nationalist Derek Black as soon as he heard his story. Black was groomed for leadership in the movement practically from birth, and his highly public decision to break away at age 24 made headlines among those who follow the shadowy world.

Black wasn’t easy to find, and even when he was found he wasn’t ready to talk. But Saslow, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for the Washington Post, persisted, eventually getting close enough to Black to tell his story in the new book “Rising Out of Hatred: The Awakening of a White Nationalist.”

Saslow visits Spokane on Sept. 24 to discuss his book with The Spokesman-Review’s Northwest Passages Book Club.

Saslow initially wrote an award-winning, magazine-length profile of Black, but he decided the story demanded to be told in a longer format. “He’s gone from being a future heir to this white nationalist movement to writing op-eds against white nationalism in the New York Times,” Saslow said in an interview. “Even trying to do something like that in 5,000 words, it’s hard to believe that somebody can travel that far.”

He learned that Black’s transformation took years of self-reflection and debate, including hours of “civil discourse” with fellow students at the small, liberal arts college he attended. A skilled immersion journalist, Saslow was able to win the trust not only of Derek Black but also of many of those around him who saw reason to believe that the charismatic young man could be reached. And Saslow also managed to win the trust of prominent white nationalists, including Derek’s father, Don Black, who launched the Stormfront website, and his godfather, former KKK Grand Wizard David Duke.

Saslow said there were uncomfortable moments researching the book, including questions about “how Jewish” he was. (Answer: Half-Jewish, not religious.) And while it was “unpleasant” to spend so much time immersed in the world of white nationalism, he felt it was important to document just how far Derek Black had traveled. “One thing I really did want to get in the book was, when possible, treat everyone involved with the humanity that their ideology denies people of color and Jews, so I tried to do that.”

The book is a terrific read that will leave readers with both concern and hope. “Rising Out of Hatred” makes clear that white nationalists have become emboldened and energized by President Donald Trump’s tacit and sometimes open acceptance of some of their long-held ideas. While the book is set mainly in the South, Saslow sees white nationalism experiencing something of a revival here in the Pacific Northwest.

“The ideal, and awful, goal of white nationalism is to create an ethnostate for whites only, and a number of groups in the Pacific Northwest have sprouted up to work toward that goal, which is one of the reasons why Idaho, Washington and Oregon have all seen a steady uptick in hate group activity,” Saslow said.

But Saslow’s book also points the way toward a solution, especially through civil discourse and civil resistance. Because if a hardened white nationalist leader like Black can be turned away from the movement, others can also be awakened and learn to be more open to multiculturalism and diversity.

“I think the power of Derek’s personal transformation is really hopeful,” Saslow said. “People’s opinions are so intractable, and we’re so certain about what we think, that the idea that somebody who’s that far on the other side can still be reached – I do think is profoundly hopeful.”

For Derek Black, the book is another step toward creating a cohesive identity out of a life lived in two distinct phases. “Certainly, in some ways he was a victim,” Saslow said. “But I think also that Derek would feel it’s much more complicated than that. … His parents raised him to be curious, to be inquisitive, to pursue knowledge, and also to value ideology and to be brave about your convictions – even when everyone else disagrees with you. And I think all of those things were necessary for Derek to be able to change his mind.”

A NOVEL IN GLOSSARY FORM: Spokane writer Elliot Reed is winning notice for his first novel, “A Key to Treehouse Living,” named one of Amazon’s best books of September. The story of a boy growing up without parents near a river in the rural Midwest is told glossary-style, with entries in alphabetical order that add up to “an impressionistic and profound exploration of self and consciousness,” according to Publisher’s Weekly.

CONTEMPORARY TAKE ON INDIAN LIFE: Another debut novel making waves is Tommy Orange’s “There There,” which sits high on fiction best-seller lists here in the Pacific Northwest and nationally. A group portrait of 12 urban Indians living in Oakland, who converge at a powwow in the city, the book has been getting rave reviews. Orange, who was born and raised in Oakland, is an enrolled member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma.

What’s next for Northwest Passages: The Spokesman-Review’s Northwest Passages Book Club is on a mission to get the Pacific Northwest reading and talking at our growing community forum, which features evenings of words, wine and live music. We invite readers to join us for “Common Read” and live storytelling events.

Upcoming events include:

Sept. 19: Pints and Politics Town Hall with Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers and challenger Lisa Brown. This event will be televised live on KHQ; tickets are sold out.

Oct. 3: “100 Things to Do in Spokane Before You Die,” by the staff of The Spokesman-Review. Launch event for this insider guide to the best of Spokane. Speakers include outdoors writer and author Rich Landers. Tickets available.

Oct. 10: Craig Johnson shares “Depth of Winter,” latest in the series behind the “Longmire” TV show. Tickets are available.

Nov. 29: Rick Steves talks about “Travel as a Political Act.” Tickets coming soon.

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Martin Wolk is a freelance writer and editor who enjoys reading contemporary fiction and memoirs. He has been a correspondent for Reuters and, among other publications. He writes The Spokesman-Review’s monthly “Reading the Northwest column.”