There have been millions of pages written about what racism is and who is a racist, but there have been fewer pages devoted to the concept of organizing around antiracism. Now Ibram X. Kendi, a historian at American University, has produced a major work that defines and refines the concept of antiracism using a multidisciplinary approach that encompasses, history, critical theory, science, ethics, and the law.
In How to Be an Antiracist, Kendi offers a multipronged examination of antiracism layered within an introspective account of his own life story, which in turn provides a vital blueprint and schematic for the prospect of creating a just society. The book is the long-awaited sequel to Kendi’s critically acclaimed 2016 work, Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, which was awarded the 2016 National Book Award for Nonfiction. (Kendi was then 34, making him the youngest author to win the award.) Stamped is an unblinkered analysis of race, which is described by the author as a fluid and formidable social construct that permeates even those who fight against it, such as abolitionists and liberals, who may also hold racist views. The book is a compelling and comprehensive survey of 500 years of racist ideology that has taken root in the United States, expressed through an examination of the lives of such key historical figures as W.E.B. Du Bois, William Lloyd Garrison, Thomas Jefferson, Cotton Mather, and Angela Davis, whose thought Kendi considers the closest to his antiracist ideal.
How to Be an Antiracist, Kendi says, has its origins in discussions about Stamped during and after speaking engagements. “People would constantly say, ‘Tell me how I can be antiracist,’ ” Kendi recalls. “The more the question came up, the more I realized that I had another book on my hands.”
How to Be an Antiracist is a primer on the concept that defines, analyzes, and deconstructs structural racism via the adoption of antiracist ideologies and practices. Kendi opens each chapter with a capsule definition of terms. He defines racists as those who are “supporting a racist policy through their actions or inaction or supporting a racist idea,” while antiracists are those who are “supporting an antiracist policy through their actions or expressing an antiracist idea.”
Racist ideas, Kendi explains, do not come from ignorance or hate but from a need to justify destructive racist social and economic policy, such as the impact of capitalism on black communities. “To love capitalism is to end up loving racism; to love racism is to end up loving capitalism,” he notes. “The conjoining twins are two sides of the same destructive body.”
Kendi’s analysis of racism is also laced with passages about his own life—similar to autobiographical passages in the works of the authors he examined in Stamped. Kendi says that The Souls of Black Folk and The Autobiography of Malcolm X are antecedents to his approach. “[Malcolm X] was so self-critical and self-reflective, which I think allowed people to open up to his story and his development,” he adds. “That’s one of the things that inspired me: how self-critical he was. For my book to be effective, I had to be willing to critique myself to my core.”
In one poignant reflection from his book, Kendi recalls a searing, Booker T. Washington–style “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” speech he delivered during a speaking competition when he was a high school student. It was full of the kinds of admonitions religious and political conservatives love to hear. The speech chastised black youth who don’t “value education,” who climb “the high tree of pregnancy,” or believe that it’s okay “not to think.” Kendi says the speech embodied ideas he would later attack through the clarifying lens of antiracism.
“The process of me writing the book was also a process of me remembering and reflecting on my own personal journey,” Kendi says. “I realized that in that speech in particular I had consumed antiblack racist ideas. And thousands of people who were also black were applauding me. Most Americans—including black Americans—denigrate poor black people, the black queer community, and black culture. Or, on the flip side, when black people say that white people are devils and aliens—I understand the historical context of how and when black people started making that case. It was in the late ’60s, when racist Americans were calling black [political] activists racist.”
These activists responded, Kendi explains, by claiming they “couldn’t be racist because they didn’t have power.” He adds, “They were, of course, trying to seize power. Their case was made in a political discourse, and it was deeply reactionary.”
Kendi grew up in humble circumstances in Queens as a hip-hop loving kid with intellectual promise. His intellectual evolution began at Florida A&M University, a historically black college, where he received a BA in journalism in 2004. Then at Temple University he earned an MA and PhD in African-American studies under Ama Mazama, and studied with Molefi Asante (founder of the department’s doctoral studies program), and began to study the concept of Afrocentrism—the study of world history from the perspective of African people and their history—as an intellectual discipline.
“When you study with Asante, you absorb and develop an appreciation of African culture worldwide,” Kendi says. “And you understand the black experience from the perspective of black people. That was very critical. At Temple, you saw people who were prolific, and who were constantly engaged in intellectual struggle.”
Kendi went on to teach at the State University of New York’s campuses at Oneonta and Albany and then at the University of Florida before heading to American University in 2017. His first book, 2012’s The Black Campus Movement: Black Students and the Racial Reconstitution of Higher Education, 1965–1972, is a history of black students on black and white campuses nationally, detailing their impact on making colleges and universities more diverse in their curriculum and admissions.
Kendi’s unsentimental approach to problems of race would steel him for the ordeal of writing How to Be an Antiracist while undergoing treatment after a diagnosis of stage IV colon cancer. “When you are facing death, you look around and think about what you want to do before you die,” he says. “Near the top of my list was finishing this book. I realized it could have been my last contribution to the world.”
Fortunately, the threat of cancer has passed with treatment, and Kendi’s latest book will not be his last. He currently writes op-ed pieces for The Atlantic which have also appeared in The New York Times and The Guardian. He is also the founding director of the Antiracist Research and Policy Center at American University in Washington, D.C., a nonprofit that, according to its website, produces research supporting “the innovation and enactment of antiracist public policies at the local, state, and national level.”
Kendi embraces the role of public intellectual but takes pains to define the position broadly. “I admire students who have the greatest desire to know and to crave knowledge,” he says. “That’s what makes one an intellectual—it’s not having a college degree or a PhD; it’s not knowing a lot of information. A person from an environment with no resources can still have a tremendous desire to know and can still be more of an intellectual than someone who is surrounded by books.”
Rallying around the concept of antiracism is more about doing than it is about being, Kendi says. “No one becomes racist or antiracist,” he adds. “It’s not who you are; it’s what you’re doing at the moment. That’s why so many refuse to accept being called racist—because they think it’s a fixed conception. But it’s not fixed: humans are deeply complex and contradictory. We have the capacity to change—and to be antiracist.”
This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly and also appeared on publishersweekly.com.
“Well, it may be the devil or it may be the LordBut you’re gonna have to serve somebody.” —Bob Dylan (1979)
1.Walking Cambridge’s Trinity Lane in 1894, Bertrand Russell had an epiphany concerning the ontological proof for God’s existence, becoming the unlikely convert effected by logical argumentation. In Russell’s essay “Why I Became a Philosopher,” included in Amelie Oksenberg Rorty’s anthology The Many Faces of Philosophy: Reflections from Plato to Arendt, the logician explains how his ruminations turned to fervor, writing that “I had gone out to buy a tin of tobacco; on my way back, I suddenly threw it up in the air, and exclaimed as I caught it: ‘Great Scott, the ontological argument is sound.’” An atheist had a brief conversion—of a sort.
Not exactly Saul being confronted with the light that (quoting Euripides’s The Bacchae) told him “It is hard for thee to kick against the pricks,” or Augustin in his Confessions recounting that after a ghostly young voice told him to “Take up and read!”, he turned to Paul’s epistles. Russell’s conversion was a bit more abstract—of the head rather than the heart. In his flat-cap, tweed jacket, and herring-bone bowtie, he was converted not by the Holy Spirit, but by a deductive syllogism. Envision the co-author of Principia Mathematica, which rigorously reduced all of mathematics to logic, suddenly being moved by the spirit.
Derived by the medieval monk Anselm of Canterbury in his 1078 Proslogion, the ontological argument holds that since existence must be a property of perfection, and God is a priori defined as a perfect being, than quod erat demonstrandum: God must exist. Russell explains this metaphysical trick in his Nobel Prize-winning History of Western Philosophy: a “Being who possesses all other perfections is better if He exists than if He does not, from which it follows that if he does not He is not the best possible Being.”
From Aquinas to Rene Descartes, there is a venerable history of attempting to prove the existence of an omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent deity, though as Nathan Schneider writes in God in Proof: The Story of a Search from the Ancients to the Internet, these arguments are “taught, argued about, and forgotten, sometimes saving a person’s particular faith, sometimes eroding it, and usually neither.” In defense of Anselm, nobody in the 11th century doubted God’s existence, and such proofs weren’t designed to convince, but rather to glory in divinity. As a subsequent defense, his proof has endured in a manner that other proofs haven’t. Cosmology and evolution have overturned most others, making them seem primitive to the point of adorableness, but Anselm endures.
Still, the syllogism can’t help but seem like a bit of a magic trick, defining God into existence rather than establishing even what type of God we’re to believe in. Critics of Anselm maintain that existence isn’t a property in the same way that other qualities are. We can imagine all sorts of characters with all sorts of qualities, but that doesn’t mean that they have to exist. Defenders of Anselm would claim that God isn’t like any other character, since a perfect thing that doesn’t exist can’t be said to be a perfect thing, and God is a perfect thing Critics of that would say that it’s possible to conceive of a perfect city, but that doesn’t mean you can buy an Amtrak ticket there, nor would a benevolent God allow Penn Station to look as it does. As the puzzle-writer (and theist) Martin Gardner notes in his delightful The Whys of a Philosophical Scrivener, “I agree with the vast majority of thinkers who see the proof as no more than linguistic sleight-of-hand.”
Eventually Russell’s new faith diffused like incense from a swinging thurible. If philosophy got Russell into this mess, then it also got him out. Russell explains that Immanuel Kant in his Critique of Pure Reason would “demolish all the purely intellectual proofs of the existence of God.” But what faith had Russell gained on Trinity Lane? It wasn’t a belief in God whom that street was named after, nor was it the Lord of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. What Russell’s faith was in, had always been in, and would always be in, was the power of reason, and in that he was unwavering.
David Hume, another of Russell’s antecedents, wrote in his 1739 A Treatise of Human Nature that “Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions.” We’re going to believe what we’re going to (dis)believe, and we’ll concoct the reasons for it later. For his part, late in life, Russell was asked how he’d respond if upon death he was brought before God’s throne, and asked why he had dared not to believe? Russell said that he’d answer “Not enough evidence!”
2.According to mercurial family lore, when my paternal grandmother’s grandfather, August Hansmann, boarded a New York-bound steamship two years after the American Civil War and one year before his native Hanover would be subsumed into Prussia, he brought along with him a copy of the Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza’s Tractatus Theologico-Politicus, denounced when it was printed in 1677 as “a book forged in hell…by the devil himself.” Like Spinoza, Hansmann was a Jew who lived among gentiles, and like Spinoza, he understood that being Other in a narrative not written by yourself had tragic consequences.
Born illegitimate, Hansmann was raised Jewish even though his father was Christian; a man who understood how being two things sometimes meant that you were seen as nothing, he also knew the strange freedom of how dictated faith is no faith at all. Similarly, Spinoza was a Sephardic Jew of converso background whose Portuguese ancestors practiced their Judaism in secret until Dutch freedom allowed them to reinvent their hidden faiths. Hansmann encountered Spinoza’s celebration of religious liberty, “where everyone’s judgement is free and unshackled, where each may worship God as his conscience dictates, and where freedom is esteemed before all things.” For the pious lens grinder, content to work by the tulip-lined canals of red-brick Amsterdam, religious truth can only be discovered without shackles, divinity only visible if you’re not compelled by Church or State.
When the Jews of Spain and Portugal were forced to convert to Catholicism, many secretly practiced the mitzvoth, venerating the Sabbath, abjuring treyf, and kissing mezuzah’s surreptitiously concealed within the ceramic blue slipper of the Virgin. As scholar Karen Armstrong notes in The Battle for God, these were people who “had been forced to assimilate to a…culture that did not resonate with their inner selves.” When finally able to practice their religion in Holland, many of them then discovered that the Judaism of the rabbis was not the same Judaism that they’d imagined, and so they chose to be something else, something completely new —neither Jewish or Christian, but rather nothing. Armstrong writes that such persecution ironically led to the “first declarations of secularism and atheism in Europe.”
Many of those slurred as swinish Marranos found it more honest to live by the dictates of their own reason. Spinoza was the most famous, condemned by his synagogue for writing things like “I say that all things are in God and move in God,” holding that nature is equivalent with the Lord, so that either nothing is God or everything is. Such pantheism is what made some condemn Spinoza as an atheist, and others such as Russell later describe him as a “God-intoxicated man” who saw holiness in every fallen leaf and gurgling creek, his very name, whether “Baruch” or “Benedict” meaning “blessed.”
Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, in Betraying Spinoza: The Renegade Jew Who Gave us Modernity, asks if he can “be considered…a Jewish thinker?” She argues that his universalism derives from the Mosaic covenant, the monotheism of the Shema extended so that God is Everything. As a result, he is the primogeniture for a certain type of rational, secular, progressive, liberal, humane contemporaneity. On that steamer crossing the Atlantic, Hansmann may have read that “freedom [can] be granted without prejudice…but also that without such freedom, piety cannot flourish.” My great-great grandfather lived his life as a Jew, but the attraction he saw in Spinoza was that each individual could decide for themselves whether to be Jew, Catholic, Protestant, or nothing.
Hansmann worked as a peddler on the Lower East Side, until the Homestead Act enticed him to Iowa, where he married a Huguenot woman who bore him 10 children, while he worked as a trader among the Native Americans. He refused to raise his children in any religion—Jewish or Protestant—preferring rather that they should decide upon reaching adulthood. And so, a union was made between the Jewish and the Low Church Protestant, rejecting both baptism and bris, so that my grandmother born on the frontier had absolutely no religion at all.
That such things are even possible—to be of no religion—is due in no small part to Spinoza’s sacrifice, his congregation having excommunicated him by extinguishing each individual light in the synagogue until the assembled dwelled in darkness. From that expulsion, Spinoza was expected to find refuge among the Protestants—but he didn’t. I’ve a photo from the early years of the 20th century: August Hansmann surrounded by his secular, stolid, midwestern progeny, himself siting in the center with a thick black beard, and a kippah barely visible upon his head.
3.A long line of Spinoza’s ancestors, and my great-great-grandfather’s ancestors, would have concluded Pesach evenings with a “Next year in Jerusalem,” praying for the reestablishment of the Temple destroyed by the Romans in the first century. Less known than the equally exuberant and plaintive Passover declaration is that, for a brief period in the fourth century, it seemed that the Temple might actually be restored, ironically by Rome’s last pagan emperor. Born in Constantinople only six years after the Council of Nicaea convened there to define what exactly a Christian was, Julian the Apostate would mount a failed revolution.
His uncle was Rome’s first Christian emperor who conquered by the cross and who turned his Rome over to Christ. Julian was of a different perspective, seeing in the resurrection of Apollo and Dionysius, Jupiter and Athena, the rejuvenation of Rome. He bid his time until military success foisted him onto the throne, and then Julian revealed himself as an initiate into those Eleusinian Mysteries, a celebrant of Persephone and Demeter who greeted the morning sun and prayed for the bounty of the earth, quoted in W. Heinemann’s The Works of the Emperor Julian as having written “I feel awe of the gods, I love, I revere, I venerate them.”
In Julian’s panegyrics, one can smell the burning thyme and sage, feel the hot wax from votive candles, spy the blue moonlight filtered through pine trees in a midnight cedar grove. If Plutarch recorded the very heavens had once declared “the great god Pan is dead,” then Julian prayed for his return; if the oracles at Delphi and the Sibyllines had been silenced by the Nazarene, then the emperor wanted the divinations of those prophets to operate once again. Julian wanted this paganism to be a new faith, an organized, unified, consolidated religion that bore as much similarity to the cohesion of the Christian Church as it did to the rag-tag collection of rituals and superstitions that had defined previous Roman beliefs.
Classicist Robin Lane Fox makes clear in Pagans and Christians that this wasn’t simple nostalgia. Fox explains that those who returned to paganism normally did so with “an accompanying philosophy” and that apostasy “always lead to a favor for some systematic belief.” The emperor’s conversion was a turning back combined with a the reformer’s desire for regeneration. In paganism, Julian approached origin, genesis, birth—less conversion than a return to what you should have been, but was denied.
Julian the Apostate endures as cipher—duplicitous reactionary who’d see Christian Rome turn back, or tolerant visionary who theologically elevated paganism? Christian thinkers had long commandeered classical philosophy, now pagan thinkers were able to apply the same analytical standards to their own beliefs, developing theology as sophisticated as that of Christianity. The American rake and raconteur Gore Vidal repurposed the emperor as a queer hero of liberalism in his unusual 1964 novel Julian, having his protagonist humanely exclaim that “Truth is where ever man has glimpsed divinity.” Where some had seen those intimations in Golgotha’s sacrifice, the Apostate saw them in the oracles of Chaldea or the groves of Athena.
Far from banning the new faith, Julian declared that “By the gods I do not want the Galileans to be killed or beaten unjustly nor to suffer any other ill.” Julian was rather interested in monopolistic trust-busting, and in part that included funding the rebuilding of the Jewish Temple that would have been destroyed by the emperor’s ancestors. The building of a Third Temple would be terminated when, as a Roman witness to the construction attempts wrote, “fearful balls of fire [broke]…out near the foundations…till the workmen, after repeated scorchings, could approach no more.” The Christians attributed the disaster to God; the Jews and Romans to the Christians.
The desire for a pagan Rome would similarly end with Julian’s defeat on the battle fields of Persia, an emperor who longed to see old gods born again now forced to declare that “You have won, Galilean.” Hard to reverse an eclipse, and so, we supplicate on another mournful and deferred day—“Next year at Delphi.”
4.The titular character in Julian claims that “academics everywhere are forever attacking one another.” During the fourth century, the academic debates were theological, all of those schisms and heresies, excommunications and counter-excommunications between exotic groups with names like the Monophysites and the Chalcedonians, the Arians and the Trinitarians. By the middle of Vidal’s 20th century, such disputations were just as rancorous, but theology was now subsumed into politics. Vidal’s own politics were strange, broadly left but with a sympathy afforded to the anti-establishmentarians of any ideological persuasion.
Vidal is most celebrated for calling the conservative founder of the National Review William F. Buckley a “crypto-Nazi” during a debate on ABC News scheduled to coincide with the 1968 Democratic convention; even the pyrotechnic rainbow of early television was unable to conceal the pure hatred between those two prep school grads. If the earliest years of Christianity saw bishops and monks moving between ever nuanced theological positions, than the 20th century was an era of political conversion, liberals becoming conservatives and conservatives becoming liberals, with Buckley’s magazine a fascinating case study in political apostasy.
Buckley’s politics were cradle-to-grave Republican conservatism, even as he garnered a reputation for expelling acolytes of both Ayn Rand and John Birch from the movement as if he was a medieval bishop overseeing a synod (they’ve long since found a way back in). Entering public life with his 1951 God and Man at Yale: The Superstitions of “Academic Freedom,” Buckley understood better than most how ideology is theology by another name (even as I personally revile his politics). Into this midst, National Review was the stodgy, tweedy vanguard of the reactionary intelligentsia, defining a conservative as “someone who stands athwart history, yelling Stop, at a time when no one is inclined to do so.”
The problem with a manifesto that defines itself entirely by anti-progress is that such a doctrine can be rather nebulous, and so many of the bright young things Buckley hired for the National Review, such as Joan Didion and Garry Wills, found themselves moving to the left. Such were the subtleties of conversion that Wills could be both the author of Confessions of a Conservative and a journalist placed on Richard Nixon’s infamous “enemies list.”
As people become harder of hearing and their bone-density decreases, movement from the left to the right does seem the more predictable narrative. For every Gary Wills, there’s a Norman Podhoretz, an Irving Kristol, a David Horowitz, a Christopher Hitchens. Leave it to the arm-chair Freudians to ascertain what Oedipal complex made those men of the left move towards the Big Daddy of right-wing politics, but what’s interesting are the ways in which they refashioned conservatism in a specifically leftist manner. Their migration was not from milquetoast Democratic liberalism, for they’d indeed been far to the left, several of them self-described Trotskyites. And as the Aztecs who became Catholic kept secretly worshiping their old gods, or as basilicas were built atop temples to Mithras, so too did those doctrines of “permanent revolution” find themselves smuggled into neoconservatism.
If politics is but religion by another means, than it’s the ideological conversion that strikes us as most scandalous. We’ve largely ceded the ground on the sacred—what could be less provocative than abandoning Presbyterianism for Methodism? But politics, that’s the thing that keeps us fuming for holy war, and we’re as titillated by stories of conversion as our ancestors were in tales of heresy and schism. Psychologist Daniel Oppenheimer observes, in Exit Right: The People Who Left the Left and Reshaped the American Century, that “belief is complicated, contingent, multi-determined. But do we really know it? Do we feel it?” Strange to think that Elizabeth Warren was once a Republican, and the man whom she will beat for the presidency was once a Democrat, but such are the vagaries of God and man, whether at Yale or anywhere else.
5.For all their differences, Buckley and Vidal could at least agree on the martini. Buckley would write in 1977 that a “dry martini even at night is a straightforward invitation for instant relief from the vicissitudes of a long day,” and Vidal in his novel Kalki published a year later would rhapsodize about the “martini’s first comforting haze.” On the left or on the right, one thing WASPs concurred about (and though Buckley was technically Catholic he had the soul of an Episcopalian) was the cocktail hour. I’ve no idea if the two had been drinking before their infamous sparring on ABC, though the insults, homophobia, and violent threats make me suspicious.
Better that they’d have followed the path of conversion that another prep school boy who moved in their social circles named John Cheever did: When on April 9, 1975 his brother checked him into New York’s Smithers Alcoholic Rehabilitation Unit, he never took another drink. Cheever had lived up to the alcoholic reputation of two American tribes—High Church Protestants and Low Church writers. From the former he inherited both the genes and an affection for gin and scotch on a Westchester porch watching the trains from Grand Central thunder Upstate, and from the later he took the Dionysian myth that conflates the muse with ethanol, pining for inspiration but settling for vomiting in an Iowa City barroom.
Cheever was one of the finest short story writers of the 20th century, his prose as crystalline and perfect as a martini. Such was the company of those other addicts, of Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Faulkner and Thomas Wolfe. Cheever’s story “The Swimmer” is one of the most perfect distillations of how alcoholism will sneak up on a person, and he avoids the laudatory denials you see in a lesser writer like Charles Bukowski. With the repressed self-awareness that is the mocking curse of all true alcoholics, Cheever would write in his diary some two decades before he got sober that “When the beginnings of self-destruction enter the heart it seems no bigger than a grain of sand,” no doubt understanding how a single drink is too many since a dozen is never enough.
His daughter Susan Cheever, herself a recovering alcoholic, notes in Drinking in America: Our Secret History that “My father’s drinking had destroyed his body, but it had also distorted his character—his soul. The restoration of one man through the simple measure of not drinking was revelatory.” The ancients called them spirits for a reason, and in their rejection there is a conversion of a very literal sort. Cheever—along with his friend Raymond Carver—is the happy exception to the fallacy that finds romance in the gutter-death of literary genius, and he got sober by doing the hard work of Alcoholics Anonymous.
The central text of that organization was compiled by Bill W., the founder of AA; its title is technically Alcoholics Anonymous, but members informally call it “The Big Book.” Past the uninspired yellow-and-blue cover of that tome, Cheever would have read stories where he’d have “found so many areas where we overlapped—not all the deeds, but the feelings of remorse and hopelessness. I learned that alcoholism isn’t a sin, it’s a disease.” And yet the treatment of that disease was akin to a spiritual transformation.
A tired debate whether Alcoholics Anonymous is scripture or not, but I’d argue that anything that so fully transforms the countenance of a person can’t but be a conversion, for as the Big Book says, “We talked of intolerance, while we were intolerant ourselves. We missed the reality and the beauty of the forest because we were diverted by the ugliness of some of its trees.” I once was lost, and now I’m found, so on and so forth. When Cheever died, he had seven sober years—and they made all the difference.
6. Conversion narratives are the most human of tales, for the drama of redemption is an internal one, played out between the protagonist and his demons. Certain tropes—the pleasure, the perdition, the contrition, the repentance, the salvation. Augustine understood that we do bad things because bad things are fun—otherwise why would he write in Confessions “Lord, grant me chastity—but not yet.” What readers thrill to are the details, the rake’s regress from dens of iniquity, from gambling, drinking, and whoring to some new-found piety.
For Cheever’s Yankee ancestors, the New England Puritans in whose stead we’ve uneasily dwelled for the past four centuries, “election” was not a matter of personal choice, but rather grace imparted onto the unworthy human. Easy to see some issues of utility here, for when accumulation of wealth is read as evidence of God’s grace, and it’s also emphasized that the individual has no role in his own salvation, the inevitable result is spiritual disenchantment and marginalization. By the middle of the 18th century, some five generations after the first Pilgrim’s slipper graced Plymouth Rock, the Congregationalist pastors of New England attempted to suture the doubts of their flocks, coming up with “half-way covenants” and jeremiads against backsliding so as to preserve God’s bounty.
Into that increasingly secular society would come an English preacher with a thick Gloucester accent named George Whitfield, who first arrived in the New World in 1738. Technically an Anglican priest, Whitfield was a confidant of George Wesley, the father of Methodism, and from that “hot” faith the preacher would draw a new vocabulary, dispelling John Calvin’s chill with the exhortation that sinners must be born again. Crowds of thousands were compelled to repent, for “Come poor, lost, undone sinner, come just as you are to Christ.” On the Eastern seaboard, the Englishman would preach from Salem to Savannah, more than 10,000 times, drawing massive crowds, even impressing that old blasphemer Benjamin Franklin at one Philadelphia revival (the scientist even donated money).
Such was the rhetorical style of what’s called the Great Awakening, when colonial Americans abandoned the staid sermons of the previous century in favor of this shaking, quaking, splitting, fitting preaching. Whitfield and Spinoza shared nothing in temperament, and yet one could imagine that the later might smile at the liberty that “established fractious sectarianism as its essential character,” as John Howard Smith writes in The First Great Awakening: Redefining Religion in American, 1725-1775. Whitfield welcomed worshippers into a massive tent—conversion as a means towards dignity and agency.
So ecumenical was Whitfield’s evangelization that enslaved people came in droves to his revivals, those in bondage welcomed as subjects in Christ’s kingdom. Such was the esteem in which the reverend was held that upon his passing in 1770 a black poet from Cambridge named Phyllis Wheatly would regard the “happy saint” as a man whom “in strains of eloquence refin’d/[did] Inflame the heart, and captivate the mind.” Whitfield’s religious charity, it should be said, was limited. He bemoaned the mistreatment of the enslaved, while he simultaneously advocated for the economic benefits of that very institution.
Can we tighten this line. As different as they were, Whitfield and Malcolm X were both children of this strange Zion that allows such reinvention. Malcolm X writes in a gospel of both American pragmatism and American power, saying that “I’m for truth, no matter who tells it. I’m for justice, no matter who it’s for or against…I am for whoever and whatever benefits humanity as a whole.” Conversion can be a means of seizing power; conversion can be a means of reinvention.
Activist Audre Lorde famously wrote that “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house,” and for a young Harlem ex-con born Malcolm Little, the Christianity of Wheatly and Whitfield would very much seem to be the domain of the plantation’s manor, so that conversion to a slave religion is no conversion at all. Mocking the very pieties of the society that Whitfield preached in, Malcolm X would declare “We didn’t land on Plymouth Rock—Plymouth Rock landed on us.” Malcolm X’s life was an on-going narrative of conversion, of the desire to transform marginalization into power. As quoted by Alex Haley in The Autobiography of Malcolm X, the political leader said “I have no mercy or compassion in me for a society that will crush people, and then penalize them for not being able to stand up.”
Transformation defined his rejection of Christianity, his membership in the Nation of Islam, and then finally his conversion to orthodox Sunni Islam. Such is true even in the rejection of his surname for the free-floating signifier of “X,” identity transformed into a type of stark, almost algebraic, abstraction. If America is a land of conversion narratives, than The Autobiography of Malcolm X is ironically one of the most American. Though as Saladin Ambar reminds us in Malcolm X at Oxford Union, his “conversion was indeed religious, but it was also political,” with all which that implies.
7.It is a truth universally acknowledged, that an apostate in possession of a brilliant spiritual mind, must be in want of a religion. If none of the religions that already exist will do, then it becomes her prerogative to invent a better one and convert to that. Critic Harold Bloom writes in The American Religion that “the religious imagination, and the American Religion, in its fullest formulations, is judged to be an imaginative triumph.” America has always been the land of religious invention, for when consciences are not compelled, the result is a brilliant multitude of schisms, sects, denominations, cults, and communes. In his Essays, the French Renaissance genius Michel de Montaigne quipped that “Man is certainly stark mad; he cannot make a worm, and yet he makes gods by the dozens.” Who, however, if given the choice between a worm or a god, would ever possibly pick the former? For America is a gene splicing laboratory of mythology, an in vitro fertilization clinic of faith, and we birth gods by the scores.
Consider Noble Drew Ali, born Timothy Drew in 1886 to former North Carolina slaves who lived amongst the Cherokee. Ali compiled into the Holy Koran of the Moorish Science Temple of America a series of ruminations, meditations, and revelations he had concerning what he called the “Moorish” origins of African-Americans. Drawing freely from Islam, Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, and the free-floating occultism popular in 19th-century America, Ali became one of the first founders of an Afrocentric faith in the United States, his movement the original spiritual home to Wallace Fard Muhammad, founder of the Nation of Islam. Ali writes that the “fallen sons and daughters of the Asiatic Nation of North America need to learn to love instead of hate; and to know of their higher self and lower self. This is the uniting of the Holy Koran of Mecca for teaching and instructing all Moorish Americans.”
Ali drew heavily from mystical traditions, combining his own idiosyncratic interpretations of Islam alongside Freemasonry and Rosicrucianism. Such theurgy was popular in the 19th century, a melancholic era when the almost million dead from Antietam and Gettysburg called out to the living, who responded with séance and Ouija Board. Historian Drew Gilpin Faust recounts in The Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War that “Many bereaved Americans…unwilling to wait until their own deaths reunited them with lost kin…turned eagerly to the more immediate promises of spiritualism.” The 19th century saw mass conversions to a type of magic, a pseudo-empirical faith whose sacraments were technological—the photographing of ghostly ectoplasm, or the receipt of telegraphs from beyond the veil of perception.
Spiritualism wasn’t merely a general term for this phenomenon, but the name of an actual organized denomination (one that still exists). Drawing from 18th-century occultists like Emanuel Swedenborg and Franz Mesmer, the first Spiritualists emerged out of the rich soil of upstate New York, the “Burned Over District” of the Second Great Awakening (sequel to Whitfield’s First). Such beliefs held that the dead were still among us, closer than our very breath, and that spirits could interact with the inert matter of our world, souls intermingled before the very atoms of our being.
Peter Manseau writes in The Apparitionists: A Tale of Phantoms, Fraud, Photography, and the Man Who Captured Lincoln’s Ghost, that “It was a time when rapidly increasing scientific knowledge was regarded not as the enemy of supernatural obsessions, but an encouragement…Electricity had given credence to notions of invisible energies…The telegraph had made communication possible over staggering distances, which raised hopes of receiving messages from the great beyond.”
Among the important founders of the movement were the Fox Sisters of Hydesville, N.Y.; three siblings whom in 1848 claimed that they’d been contacted by spirits, including one named “Mr. Splitfoot,” who communicated in raps, knocks, and clicks. Decades later, Margaret Fox would admit that it was a hoax, since a “great many people when they hear the rapping imagine at once that the spirits are touching them. It is a very common delusion.” Despite the seeming credulity of the movement’s adherents, Spiritualists were crucial reformers, with leaders like Cora L.V. Scott and Paschal Beverly Randolph embracing abolitionism, temperance, civil rights, suffragism, and labor rights. When the cause is good, perhaps it doesn’t matter which god’s vestments you wear.
And of course the great American convert to a religion of his own devising is Joseph Smith. America’s dizzying diversity of faith confused young Smith, who asked “Who of all these parties are right, and how shall I know?” From the same upstate environs as the Fox Sisters, Smith was weened on a stew of evangelicalism and occultism, a child of the Second Great Awakening, who in those flinty woods of New York dreamt of finding shining golden tablets left by angels. Writing in No Man Knows My History: The Life of Joseph Smith, scholar Fawn M. Brodie notes that for the New England and New York ancestors of Smith there was a “contempt for the established church which had permeated the Revolution, which had made the federal government completely secular, and which was in the end to divorce the church from the government of every state.”
Smith rather made America itself his invented religion. Stephen Prothero writes in American Jesus: How the Son of God Became a National Hero that there is a tendency of “Americans to make their nation sacred—to view its citizens as God’s chosen people.” Yet it was only Smith’s Mormons who so completely literalized such a view, for the Book of Mormon describes this as “a land which is choice above all other lands.” The effect was electrifying; Brodie writes: “In the New World’s freedom the church had disintegrated, its ceremonies had changed, and its stature had declined.” What remained was a vacuum in which individual minds could dream of new faiths. Spinoza would recognize such independence, his thin face framed by his curled wig, reflected back from the polished glow of one of Moroni’s tablets excavated from the cold ground of Palmyra, N.Y.
8.“In the beginning there was the Tao, and the Tao was God,” reads John 1:1 as translated in the Chinese Version Union bible commissioned by several Protestant denomination between 1890 and 1919. Appropriating the word “Tao” makes an intuitive sense, arguably closer to the Neo-Platonist language of “Logos” as the term is rendered in the koine Greek, than to the rather confusing terminology of “the Word” as it’s often translated in English.
Read cynically, this
bible could be seen as a disingenuous use of Chinese terminology so as to make
Christianity feel less foreign and more inviting, a Western wolf in Mandarin robes.
More charitably, such syncretism could be interpreted as an attempt to find the
universal core between those two religions, a way of honoring truth regardless
of language. Conversion not between faiths, but above them. Perhaps naïve, but
such a position might imply that conversion isn’t even a possibility, that all
which is needed in the way of ecumenicism is to place the right words with the
The earliest synthesis between Taoism, Buddhism, Confucianism, and Christianity is traceable to the seventh century. At the Mogao Caves in Dunhuang, Gansu Province, a cache called the Jingjiao Documents penned during the Tang Dynasty and attributed to the students of a Syrian monk named Alopen were rediscovered in 1907. Alopen was a representative of that massive eastern branch of Christianity slurred by medieval European Catholics as being “Nestorian,” after the bishop who precipitated their schism at a fifth-century church council (the theological differences are arcane, complicated, and for our purposes unimportant).
During those years of late antiquity, European Christendom was a backwater; before the turn of the first millennium the Catholicus of Baghdad would have been a far more important cleric than the Pope was, for as scholar Philip Jenkins explains in The Lost History of Christianity: The Thousand Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia—and How it Died, the “particular shape of Christianity with which we are familiar is a radical departure from what was for well over a millennium the historical norm…For most of its history, Christianity was a tricontinental religion, with power representations in Europe, Africa, and Asia.”
In 635, Alopen was an evangelist to a pluralistic civilization that had a history that went back millennia. His mission was neither colonial nor mercantile, and as a religious scholar he had to make Christianity appealing to a populace content with their beliefs. And so, Alopen converted the Chinese by first converting Christianity. As with the translators of the Chinese Version Union bible, Alopen borrowed Taoist and Buddhist concepts, configuring the Logos of John as the Tao, sin as karma, heaven as nirvana, and Christ as an enlightened Bodhisattva.
Sinologist Martin Palmer, writing in The Jesus Sutras: Rediscovering the Lost Scrolls of Taoist Christianity, argues that Alopen avoided “what many missionaries have tried to do—namely, make people adapt to a Western mind-set.” Rather, Alopen took “seriously the spiritual concerns of China.” Alopen was successful enough that some 150 years after his arrival, a limestone stele was engraved in both Mandarin and Syriac celebrating the history of Chinese Christianity. With a massive cross at the top of the Xi’an stele, it announced itself as a “Memorial of the Propagation in China of the Luminous Religion from Rome.” During a period of anti-Buddhist persecution in the ninth century, when all “foreign” religions were banned, the stele was buried, and by 986 a visiting monk reported that “Christianity is extinct in China.”
Like Smith uncovering his golden tablets, workers in 1625 excavated the Xi’an stele, and recognizing it as Christian sent for Jesuits who were then operating as missionaries to the Ming Court. Portuguese priest Alvaro Semedo, known to the court as Xie Wulu, saw the stele as evidence of Christian continuity; other clergy were disturbed that the monument was from a sect that the Church itself had deemed heretical 1,000 years before. German Jesuit polymath Athanasius Kirchner supplied a Latin translation of the stele, enthusing in his China Illustrata that Xi’an’s rediscovery happened by God’s will “at this time when the preaching of the faith by way of the Jesuits pervaded China, so that old and new testimonies…would go forth…and so the truth of the Gospel would be clear to everyone.” But was it so clear, this strange gospel of the Tao?
Much of Kircher’s book was based on his colleague Fr. Mateo Ricci’s accounts of the Ming Court. Ricci had taken to wearing the robes of a Confucian scholar, borrowing from both Confucius and Lao-Tzu in arguing that Catholicism was a form of those older religions. The Dominicans and Franciscans in China were disturbed by these accommodations, and by 1645 (some 35 years after Ricci had died) the Vatican’s Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith ruled against the Jesuits (though this was a process that went back and forth). Maybe there is something fallacious in simply pretending all religions are secretly the same. Prothero writes in God Is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions that Run the World, that we often have “followed scholars and sages down the rabbit hole into a fantasy world in which all gods are one.” Catholicism is not Taoism, and that’s to the integrity of both.
But Ricci’s attitude was a bold one, and in considering different beliefs, he was arguably a forerunner of pluralistic tolerance. We risk abandoning something beautiful if we reject the unity that Alopen and Ricci worked for, because perhaps there is a flexibility to conversion, a delightful promiscuity to faith. Examining one of the Chinese water-colors of Ricci, resplendent in the heavenly blue silk of the panling lanshan with a regal, heavy, black putou on his head, a Roman inquisitor may have feared who exactly was converting whom.
9.In the painting, Sir Francis Dashwood —11th Baron le Despencer and Great Britain’s Chancellor of the Exchequer from 1762 to 1763—is depicted as if he was St. Francis of Assisi. Kneeling in brown robes, the aristocrat is a penitent in some rocky grove, a hazy blue-grey sfumato marking the countryside visible through a gap in the stones. In the corner is a silver platter, grapes and cherries tumbled onto the soil of this pastoral chapel, as if to remind the viewer of life’s mutability, “Vanity of vanity” and all the rest of it. Some tome—perhaps The Bible?—lay open slightly beyond the nobleman’s gaze, and with hand to breast, Dashwood contemplates what looks like a crucifix. But something is amiss in this portrait painted by Dashwood’s friend, that great notary of 18th-century foibles William Hogarth. The crucifix—it’s not Christ on the cross, but a miniature nude woman with her head thrown back. Suddenly the prurient grin on the stubbly face of Dashwood makes more sense.
If you happen to be an expert on 18th-century French pornography, you might notice that it’s not the gospels that lay open on cracked spine next to Dashwood, but a copy of Nicolas Chorier’s Elegantiae Latini sermonis; were you familiar with the intricacies of Westminster politics in the 1760s, you may have observed that rather than a golden, crescent halo above the baron’s head, it’s actually a cartoon of the Earl of Sandwich in lunar profile.
Already raised in the anti-Catholic environment of British high society, Dashwood’s disdain for religion was incubated during his roguish youth while on his fashionable Grand Tour of the continent—he was expelled from the Papal States. In the anonymously written 1779 Nocturnal Revels, a two-volume account of prostitution in London, the author claims that Dashwood “on his return to England, thought that a burlesque institution in the name of St. Francis, would mark the absurdity of such Societies; and in lieu of the austerities and abstemiousness there practiced, substitute convivial gaiety, unrestrained hilarity, and social felicity.”
To house his “Franciscans,” Dashwood purchased a former Cistercian Abby in Buckinghamshire that overlooked the Thames, and in dazzling stain-glass had inscribed above its entrance the famous slogan from the Abby of Thelema in Francois Rabelais’s 15th-century classic Gargantua and Pantagruel—“Do What Thou Wilt.” Its grounds were decorated with statues of Dionysius—Julian the Apostate’s revenge—and the gothic novelist (and son of a Prime Minister) Horace Walpole wrote that the “practice was rigorously pagan: Bacchus and Venus were the deities to whom they almost publicly sacrificed; and the nymphs and the hogsheads that were laid in against the festivals of this new church.” Within those gothic stone walls, Dashwood’s compatriots very much did do what they would, replacing sacramental wine with liquor, the host with feasting, and the Mass with their orgies. The Monks of Medenham Abby, founded upon a Walpurgis Night in 1752, initiated occasional worshipers including the respected jurist Robert Vansittart, John Montague 4th Earl of Sandwich, the physician Benjamin Edward Bates II, the parliamentarian George Bubb Dodington, and in 1758 they hosted a colonial scientist named Benjamin Franklin (fresh from a Whitfield revival no doubt).
Such gatherings were not uncommon among the bored upper classes of European society; Black Masses were popular among French aristocrats into the 17th century, and in Britain punkish dens of obscenity like Dashwood’s were known as “Hell-Fire Clubs.” Evelyn Lord writes in her history The Hellfire Clubs: Sex, Satanism and Secret Societies that long before Dashwood ever convened his monks, London had been “abuzz with rumors of highborn Devil-worshipers who mocked the established Church and religion, and allegedly supped with Satan,” with the apparently non-Satanic members of Parliament pushing for anti-blasphemy legislation.
That’s the thing with blasphemy though—there’s no Black Mass without first the Mass, no Satan without God. Irreverent, impious, and scandalous though Dashwood may have been, such activities paradoxically confirm faith. Lord writes that the “hell-fire clubs represented an enduring fascination with the forbidden fruit offered by the Devil…But the members of these clubs faced a dilemma: if they believed in Satan and hell-fire, did they by implications believe in a supernatural being, called God, and a place called Heaven?” Should the sacred hold no charged power, were relics simply bits of rag and bone, than there would be no electricity in their debasement; were a crucifix meaningless, than there would be no purpose in rendering it pornographic. A blasphemous conversion, it turns out, may just be another type of conversion.
Geoffrey Ashe argues in The Hell-Fire Clubs: Sex, Rakes and Libertines that Thelema is an antinomian ethic that can be traced from Rabelais through the Hell-Fire Clubs onto today. He writes that such a history is “strange and unsettling. It discloses scenes of pleasure and laughter, and also some of the extremist horrors ever conceived. It introduces us to cults of the Natural, the Supernatural; to magic, black and otherwise.” Dashwood’s confraternity encompasses figures as diverse as the Marquis de Sade, the notorious occultist Aleister Crowley (who had Rabelais’s motto carved above the entrance to his own monastery in Sicily), and LSD evangelist Timothy Leary. Fear not the blasphemer, for such is merely a cracked prophet of the Lord. As Master Crowley himself wrote in Aceldama: A Place to Bury Strangers, “I was in the death struggle with self: God and Satan fought for my soul those three long hours. God conquered – now I have only one doubt left—which of the twain was God?”
10.When the Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha, lily of the Mohawks and the sainted maiden of the Iroquois village of Kahnawake, laid her head upon her death-bed one chill spring in 1680, it was said that the disfiguring small-pox scars she’d contracted vanished from her beautiful corpse. There in the dread wilderness of New France, where spring snows fall blue and deep and the horizon is marked with warm smoke from maple long-houses and fallen acorns are soggy under moccasin slippers, America’s indigenous saint would die. A witness recorded that Tekakwitha’s face “suddenly changed about a quarter of an hour after her death, and became in a moment so beautiful.” A fellow nun records that the evening of the saint’s death, she heard a loud knock at her door, and Tekakwitha’s voice saying “I’ve come to say good-bye; I’m on my way to heaven.”
Tekakwitha’s short decades were difficult, as they must by necessity be for anyone who becomes a saint. She was victim of a world collapsing in on itself, of the political, social, economic, and ecological calamities precipitated by the arrival of the very people whose faith she would convert to, one hand holding a bible and a crucifix, the other a gun—all of them covered in the invisible killing virus. Despite it being the religion of the invaders, Tekakwitha had visions of the Virgin and desired conversion, and so she journeyed over frozen Quebec ground to the village of the “Black Robes” who taught that foreign faith.
When Tekakwitha met with the Jesuits, they told the Iroquois woman not of the Tao, nor did they speak of heaven, rather they chanted a hymn of Karonhià:ke, the realm from which the father of all things did send his only son to die. Of her own accord, Tekakwitha meditated on the words of the Jesuits, her confessor Fr. Cholonec recording that she finally said “I have deliberated enough,” and she willingly went to the baptismal font. She has for the past three-centuries been America’s indigenous saint, a symbol of Christ reborn on this land, the woman of two cultures whom William T. Vollman describes in his novel Fathers and Crows as “Tekakwitha…praying besides the Cross of maple wood she had made.”
Much controversy follows such conversions: are we to read Tekakwitha—who endures as a symbol of syncretism between Christianity and indigenous spirituality—as a victim? As a willing penitent? As some cross between the two? In his novel Beautiful Losers, the Canadian poet, novelist, and songwriter Leonard Cohen says of Tekakwitha that a “saint does not dissolve the chaos.” Tekakwitha is not a dialectic to resolve the contradictions between the Catholic and the Iroquois, the French and the Mohawk. She is not an allegory, a parable, a metaphor, or an example—she is Tekakwitha, a woman.
If we are to draw any allegorizing lesson from her example, it must be this—conversion, like death, is something that is finally done alone. Who can we be to parse her reasons for embracing that faith, just as how can we fully inhabit the decisions of Julian, or Spinoza, or Hansmann, or Ricci? Nothing can be more intimate, or sometimes more surprising, than the turn of a soul, the conversion of a woman or man. We aren’t known to one another; we’re finally known only to God—though it’s impossible to say which one. When Tekakwitha’s appearance changed, was this an indication of saintliness? Of her true form? Of the beatified face when it looks upon the creator-god Ha-wen-ni-yu? All that can be said of conversion is that it’s never final, we’re always in the process of being changed, and pray that it’s possible to alter our broken world in return. Converts, like saints, do not reconcile the chaos, they exist amidst it. In hagiography, we find not solution, but mystery—as sacred and holy as footprints on a virgin Canadian snow, finally to be erased as the day turns to night.
Image credit: Unsplash/Diana Vargas.
When I was 17, I stole a painting from high school. It was the climax of a pretty standard adolescent awakening: I read The Autobiography of Malcolm X. In the book’s characterization, Malcolm X is the kind of impeccable hero teens go for: brilliant charismatic tough guy redeemed, only to be martyred by backstabbers (as an adult, I cringed at Manning Marable’s only slightly defanging biography, so committed was I to this image). I bought the book on a whim; Spike Lee’s new biopic Malcolm X was out. I knew nothing about Malcolm X other than he had been an angry second fiddle to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.; he had yet to reappear as he would after the film, showing up in gangsta rap videos and on t-shirts. I was just the type of uptight kid who read the book before the movie. It also happened to be the winter after the Rodney King Riots: 1992.
I had zero expectations of The Autobiography — as many refer to it — but Alex Haley wisely opens with the riveting murder of Malcolm X’s father on railroad tracks. By the time Malcolm enters prison, I had abandoned the other books I was reading and cut short my normally lengthy phone calls. The questions Malcolm posed during his prison debates (the ammo for which he acquired via miraculous feats of reading) floored me with their conspicuousness. I went through one highlighter and started on another, feeling for the first time intellectually disappointed in myself. It was cataclysmic. Malcolm made me feel more stupid than I had ever felt.
After all, what was the likelihood that any person from ancient Palestine, including Jesus Christ, would have the blonde hair and stained-glass blue eyes I saw in churches? Yet when I had heard, just one year earlier, Nikki Giovanni’s “Ego Tripping” on an episode of the black sitcom A Different World, I had rolled my eyes at a non-white Jesus. Now, I as I read, I felt like the Harvard seminary student Malcolm humiliates during a prison debate: of course Jesus was brown.
As Malcolm described the impact of cramped quarters and heavy policing on mid-century Blacks in northern ghettoes, I thought of my own neighborhood. Langley Park, Md., was a suburban ghetto just outside the then-murder capital, Washington D.C. The selling of drugs was so prevalent the ice cream truck sold gum dispensers shaped like plastic versions of the pagers dealers wore, one of whom, a classmate, would be shot dead across from our high school his senior year. As Malcolm described the riotous anger felt by over-policed and brutalized Black communities of mid-century Harlem, I recalled the L.A. Riots last spring and cringed, again at myself.
Just six months before, I had been completely unsympathetic to the riots that erupted when officers were inexplicably acquitted of beating Rodney King on tape. The recording brought national attention to what was a known phenomenon in Black communities: unchecked police violence. I, like everyone I knew, had been scandalized by the ruling. Hadn’t they seen the tape? Yet I had had no sympathy for the rioters yanking drivers from their cars and setting streets ablaze. The grainy gray footage of King’s brutal beating was supplanted by the live aerial view of rioters dragging blonde Reginald Denny from his tomato red 18-wheeler in order to beat him nearly to death, one with a brick. I could not understand what I was seeing. I raged in my diary about the riots. They lasted five days.
Malcolm speaks eloquently on the subject of rage. The rage injustice could produce was unavoidable, if not always palatable. James Baldwin called it the need of the ghetto “to smash something.” After reading Malcolm, the L.A. Riots had context: the beating of Rodney King and the absolution of the officers was not some peculiar lapse but a longstanding continuity. I, a reader, a smarty pants, a working class of color kid, should have understood. I trashed my diary. What would Malcolm have thought of the old me?
Until then, racism had meant slavery and water fountains. I now saw modern corollaries to Malcolm’s arguments everywhere: the cartoonish mascot of my elementary school Cherokee Lane, the maddening inferiority I felt around white kids despite how deeply vain I was, my mother shooing me out of the summer sun so I wouldn’t get darker, the lack of makeup that matched my skin. What was most striking, however, in terms of racism, was school.
One of the saddest moments of The Autobiography is when Malcolm is probed about his career plans by his eighth grade teacher Mr. Ostrowski. Malcolm answers he would like to become a lawyer; Lansing had no Black lawyers. At the time Malcolm is top of his class, well liked and bright. Yet Mr. Ostrowski encourages Malcolm to be “realistic” about being “a nigger,” to consider something that he could be, like a carpenter. He did not mean to be unkind.
My high school guidance counselor Mr. Stein, on the other hand, gave me first perusal when he received bulletins about scholarships. Once he told me I owed him $9 because he had signed me up for the PSAT even though I hadn’t known what it was. Yet Mr. Stein did not know anything remarkable about me other than I was a South Asian kid with good but not excellent grades. I hadn’t yet taken any leadership roles or made any elite teams, but Mr. Stein’s attention made me feel like the type of person who should apply for scholarships.
Of course Mr. Stein was only doing his job, part of which was to identify in a class of over 500 students those who showed promise. Perhaps I did. What is worth noting, however, is that in a school of largely Black and Latino students, the students classified as honors students were most often white and Asian.
Asians have often benefited from positive stereotyping, much of which stems from the 1965 Immigration Act. At the time, the nation was panicked by the Soviet Union’s launch of Sputnik; America desperately needed immigrants with technical skills for the space race. The immigration act lead to a large influx of highly educated Asian and South Asian immigrants. These doctors and engineers contributed to positive stereotypes and unfair comparisons to other minorities: the model minority myth.
This myth benefited even those like me, model minorities whose parents were not college educated. In the classroom being South Asian often meant being tracked as gifted. Was I actually gifted or did I benefit from the assumption I was gifted? Who’s to say. What I can say is that any student would’ve benefited from the privileges and dispensations I received — long before I had achieved anything — not the least of which were my teacher’s rosy expectations.
Malcolm never forgot how the white children in his class were encouraged to pursue professional careers by the same teacher who told him he could not become a lawyer. In fact, he called his encounter with Mr. Ostrowski the first turning point of his life, the moment where he turned away from school. This was almost surely not Mr. Ostrowski’s intent. He must have believed having different expectations for Malcolm was sensible. After all, it was 1938.
In the public schools I attended in the ’90s there was, in addition to the divide in expectations, concrete differences in how students were treated. There were, for example, two computer labs at my high school. The lab I used had a humming, air-conditioned, cottony quietness, lined with sleek Macs and PCs, as well as laser printers and free three-inch floppy discs in Ziploc bags, whereas the Perkins Lab designated for the rest of school was in the basement, had older beige colored computers and one shrieking printer so ancient it required paper with perforated edges that rolled on a ream. In late spring, humidity turned the lab into a swamp.
There were also two school policies on schedule adjusting. The official schoolwide policy was rescheduling was not allowed: unless your schedule had a true error — you had already passed geometry for example — the reply was always no.
The other policy on scheduling was yes. When I wanted the AP bio section taught by a perky but serious teacher known for recruiting varsity football players to stand shirtless while she pointed out the muscles students had to memorize, instead of the ex-hippy who smoked pot in the parking lot with seniors I was actually assigned, my Academic Center Honors advisor agreed to switch me into the class I wanted. After a brief charade of resistance, she signed the crinkly slip with a quick admonition: don’t broadcast this. It felt like a secret handshake.
This subject of unearned privilege would eventually lead to publications in small literary journals and a dissertation on model minority privilege as it relates to Black Americans. I would eventually be troubled by Malcolm’s attitude towards women, evidenced most memorably by his advice to a young Muhammad Ali about cute little foxes really being wolves. At 17, however, the book made me want to align myself with the side I was newly on. I wanted to do more than regurgitate Malcolm’s arguments to eye rolling classmates.
That’s when I decided to steal a painting from school. I wanted to prove that in a school where students wore ID badges I could get away with brazen theft because of a status earned by, amongst other factors, a decade’s worth of positive assumptions about my ethnicity.
The morning I stole the painting, I skipped physics to drag a chair into the hallway so I could reach the painting. When a teacher on patrol for hall passes approached me, I pretended to be struggling. I had no pass or ID.
“Can you help me get this down?” I asked. Arms stretched over my head, I put on a suffering expression.
“Sure.” He unhooked the painting from the cinder block wall and handed it to me.
By the time I called thanks over my shoulder (I did not bother to return the chair) he was detaining an ESL student waving a mint-colored hall pass.
No one questioned me as I hauled the painting past classrooms and down three flights of stairs to the gym. When I got there, a gym teacher held the door open. I slammed the painting into the trunk of my friend’s car with an airy whunk.
Only one adult stopped me the day I took the painting, an English teacher counting down to the final bell by surveying the hall from her door.
“That one has been around here a while,” she said.
I turned the painting to face us so we both could take a long look. The soft pastels depicted a barn and an apple tree and rows of unidentified produce. There was a covered bridge. It was a Jeffersonian ideal, an anodyne American dream void of any American complications.
“Long before I got here,” she continued. “And that was a long time ago.”
I had never had her for a teacher, yet she had engaged in friendly, grown-up chatter with me, rather than questioning, reasonably, what I was doing strolling the hall without a pass while lugging a piece of school property. Instead, she decided to recognize me as someone being groomed to enter the adult world she inhabited.
I meant to immediately return the painting, having made a point I cravenly broadcast to no one but myself, but I didn’t right away. I hid the painting in the basement, where it stayed for years until it somehow briefly ended up in my parent’s living room, flanked by my and my brother’s several degrees.
Ghostwriting used to be book publishing’s dirty little secret. A vaguely disreputable art, it was practiced quietly on the back streets of the business’s shadier precincts. The term itself speaks to a desire for privacy and anonymity—ghosts were invisible and, for the most part, happy to stay that way.
No more. Today a growing cadre of writers are discovering that checking their ego at the door and telling someone else’s story can make them very successful, very rich and, in at least one case, as close to happy as most writers will ever get.
Meet Michael D’Orso, the happy ghost.
“I bristle at the term ‘ghostwriter,'” says D’Orso. “It indicates dishonesty. It indicates hiding behind the scenes. I prefer collaborator. I’m not a shill.”
Fair enough. D’Orso, a former newspaperman, has collaborated on 10 books with subjects ranging from a U.S. senator to an inner-city principal, a fitness guru, an amateur genealogist, a professional football player and a civil rights icon. He has also written five non-fiction books on his own, on such topics as the enclave of expats on the Galapagos Islands and a disappearing tribe of native Alaskans above the Arctic circle. He has been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize six times. One of his books rose to #1 on the New York Times best-seller list and stayed on the list for more than three years. He was able to quit his newspaper job long ago and now writes full-time in his elegant – and paid-for – 4-bedroom brick Tudor house facing the Lafayette River in Norfolk, Virginia. A workaholic by any measure, he is collaborating on two books at the moment – one with a woman named Deborah Kenny who operates four thriving charter schools in Harlem, the other with the actor Ted Danson about the world’s endangered oceans. The oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is very much on D’Orso’s mind these days.
This track record has made him rich and has put him up there in the thin air with the most sought-after collaborators. The unofficial dean of this rarefied group is William Novak, whose 1984 mega-hit, Iacocca, alerted the publishing industry to the fact that there is so much money in ghostwritten celebrity autobiographies and memoirs that the things can’t possibly be shameful. Indeed, when Bill Clinton’s former aide George Stephanopoulos bagged Novak to pen his memoir in the late 1990s, the New York Times allowed that having a big-name collaborator has become “a mark of prestige like being seen about town with a trophy wife.” Chris Ayres, who ghostwrote Ozzy Osbourne’s memoir, told the Chicago Sun-Times: “Who you choose as your collaborator is seen as almost part of the talent of the (subject). It’s seen as a decision that’s an important part of the creative process.”
Madeleine Morel’s 2M Communications Ltd. in New York represents more than 100 ghostwriters. Morel, who considers herself more of a talent agent than a conventional literary agent, usually matches writers with projects that come to her from editors and other agents. “Books aren’t books anymore, they’re products,” she says. “In non-fiction you have to have a platform – somebody who has a household name, or schleps around the country giving seminars, or gets a lot of media exposure. A lot of this is dictated by the fact that we’ve all become such slaves to pop culture. It’s very unromantic.”
Hard words, but undeniably true. What Morel does – putting interesting (or merely famous) people together with talented storytellers to produce commercially viable books – is an equation that makes a great deal of sense for these times. Many people have intriguing life stories, and many others appeal to readers simply because of they’re famous or notorious or stylish or rich or powerful or weird. Quite often such people are incapable of writing a single coherent sentence, let alone a book. Given that, it might even be regarded as a public service that professional writers are brought in, more and more often, to help such people tell their stories. Anyone who has heard Sarah Palin talk was surely relieved to learn that she’d hired a professional writer named Lynn Vincent to ghostwrite her memoir, Going Rogue. Speaking for Palin and her husband, Vincent wrote: “We felt our very normalcy, our status as ordinary Americans could be a much-needed fresh breeze blowing into Washington, D.C.” The sentiment might make you want to blow lunch, but the sentence could have been so much worse.
Small wonder, then, that ghostwriting has officially left the ghetto. In the years since Iacocca appeared – and perhaps going back to Alex Haley’s legendary ghostwriting job on The Autobiography of Malcolm X in 1965 – the engines that drive the arts, entertainment, celebrity and technology have been working together, sometimes by accident and sometimes by design, to remove any lingering taint from the act of collaboration. As the generation weaned on computer technology takes center stage, the embrace of pastiche in all art forms is challenging the very notion of a unique artistic voice. When everything belongs to everybody, originality itself becomes a questionable proposition. After a German teenager named Helene Hegemann won rave reviews for Axolotl Roadkill, her novel about druggy Berlin club kids, a blogger pointed out that she’d lifted entire pages, almost verbatim, from another writer. Unfazed, Hegemann countered that her methods were part of the sampling culture the novel set out to capture and celebrate. The judges of a prestigious German literary prize agreed. “There’s no such thing as originality anyway,” Hegemann said, “just authenticity.”
It is possible to argue with that sentiment, but there’s no denying its broad appeal and growing acceptance. In such a fluid climate – and in a culture that’s pie-eyed drunk on celebrity in its glitziest and tawdriest forms – it’s not surprising that ghostwriting has won acceptance as just one of many legitimate ways to produce books. Including novels. Brand-name author James Patterson has a stable of writers helping him churn out his best-selling thrillers. The rapper 50 Cent, who must be a very busy man, pays someone to ghostwrite his 140-character tweets for Twitter. A reading public inured to fabricated journalism, fake memoirs and bald acts of plagiarism barely shrugged when word got out that Ted Kennedy had quietly worked with a ghostwriter whose name did not appear on the cover of his posthumous memoir, True Compass. The publisher insisted that the late senator was deeply involved in the writing. Such is not always the case. Some subjects’ brazen lack of involvement in their own books has become the source of loopy publishing lore. When Ronald Reagan’s memoir, An American Life, appeared, the Gipper gave high praise to his ghostwriter, Robert Lindsey. “I hear it’s a terrific book,” Reagan said. “One of these days I’m going to read it myself.” Long gone are the days when the likes of Ulysses S. Grant, Charles de Gaulle and John F. Kennedy shouted down any suggestion that they’d relied on ghostwriters to help them produce their memoirs. Such authorial integrity now seems so 19th- and 20th-century, so quaintly pre-digital.
Given this history, it’s easy to find much to admire in the way Michael D’Orso collaborates on a book. He had to learn the craft from scratch, and his education began one day in 1986 when he received a phone call from Jackie Onassis, then a book editor at Doubleday. She had read a newspaper article of D’Orso’s that had gotten picked up by the wire services, the story of a black social worker named Dorothy Redford who was researching her slave ancestry.
(Full disclosure: When D’Orso received that phone call, we were both working as staff writers at the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot. I had already developed great respect for D’Orso’s fierce energy, his skill as a reporter, and his ability to craft vivid sentences and narratives. After reading three of his books, my admiration has only grown.)
Initially D’Oroso was taken aback when he realized that Onassis wanted him to write a book with Redford, not a book about her. Every collaborative book he could think of was, as he puts it, “a piece of shit.” Then, remembering The Autobiography of Malcolm X, D’Orso decided to take the plunge.
“I made my own simple rules,” he recalls, speaking with the same intensity he brings to his reporting and writing. “Number one, it would truly be a collaboration. We agree to go in together and we’re not going to leave until we both agree on the final result. Number two, what the subject brings is his or her story and what I bring are my skills as a writer. I’m going to push you as far as you can go. I’m going to ask questions that go into more detail than you’re used to giving. A lot of it might be hard and painful, but you’ve got to agree to answer everything. It’s a leap of faith. I like to climb into the person’s head.”
All proceeds would be split 50-50, and D’Orso’s insisted his name appear on the cover after “and” or “with.” Predictably, there were sparks. Redford balked at revealing that her paternal grandfather was white, and that she had never married the father of her daughter. D’Orso insisted that both facts be in the book, arguing that readers would embrace Redford for her candor. He won the argument, and his prediction came true. “One of Dorothy’s friends said the book sounded so much like her that she thought it was transcribed,” D’Orso says. “I couldn’t receive a higher compliment.”
In addition to taping hours of interviews in order to absorb the rhythms of his subject’s voice, D’Orso interviews friends, families and enemies, visits important locales, and researches personal papers and printed records. He is, at heart, still an old-school reporter, a believer in atmosphere and context and the telling detail. While collaborating with Congressman John Lewis, for example, they drove together to many of the battlefields of the civil rights movement, including Nashville, Birmingham, Selma and the Montgomery bus station where Lewis got his head split open by a ravening mob of white racists.
When a collaboration with the partially paralyzed NFL football player Dennis Byrd won a $1.1 million advance at auction in 1992, D’Orso was finally able to give up newspapering and write books full-time. Over the years he has turned down several potential subjects, including former L.A. police chief Daryl Gates (“a cowboy run amok”), Vice President Dan Quayle (“an idiot”) and P. Diddy (“that asshole”). There have also been disappointments, most notably U.S. Senator Joseph Lieberman’s memoir, In Praise of Public Life. “That’s the one book I’d like to erase off my resume,” D’Orso says. “On paper it looked like a good story, but it turned out there wasn’t any there there. I couldn’t penetrate his facade, and the book was bloodless, lifeless.”
And then there was the case of troubled football star Ricky Williams. D’Orso’s immersion in that project included helping deliver Williams’s daughter on the kitchen floor in his Toronto home, and compiling 1,000 pages of transcribed interviews. But three years into the project Williams suddenly made himself invisible until D’Orso, with 300 polished manuscript pages on his desk, swallowed hard and withdrew from the project. Many writers operating on a thin margin would have been devastated by so much wasted effort. D’Orso could afford to shrug it off and move on.
In fact, that’s what money is to him: the freedom to pick and choose his projects, and occasionally fail. “I never had the goal of being rich,” he says, “and I have never been super-ambitious. A newspaper’s big enough for me. As long as I was able to make a living from my writing, I was happy. My ambition was to have people consider my writing truly great. Look, I need to be writing because you can’t be more alive than when you’re climbing into other lives in other worlds, whether it’s the Galapagos Islands or the Arctic circle. I’ve felt rich from the beginning – from the day I split the $40,000 advance for my first book.”
Then again, he felt hire-an-accountant rich on the day he drove to the bank in his wheezing Mitsubishi to deposit his first royalty check from Body For Life, his collaboration with the fitness guru Bill Phillips that became a #1 best-seller. When the bank teller realized the check was for $1.2 million, she looked up at D’Orso, her eyes as shiny as new dimes, and asked: “Are you married?”
Most writers – ghosts, collaborators, midwives, brand names, wannabes, novelists, journalists, geniuses and hacks – would kill for the chance to cash such a check and get asked such a question. Michael D’Orso knows this. It’s one of many reasons why he’s a happy ghost.