Book – Black Klansman
Author – Ron Stallworth
Year – 2014
Pages – 191
Genre – Autobiography
Last year, we sat down to watch Spike Lee’s film BlackkKlansman. It is a film about a black man, who makes the interesting decision to join the KKK. It is made more understandable – although by no means less interesting – that he is an undercover policeman. It is made all the more interesting, byt the fact that this is something that very genuinely happened, and the film was based on the memoir of the man who did it – Ron Stallworth.
This book covers the whole thing – from the way that he became the first black policeman in Colorado Springs, through the way that he worked himself into undercover detective work, through the telephone application to join the most famous racist group in the United States and the subsequent operation that involved his colleague going undercover as Ron into the heart of the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan, as Stallworth makes contact via the telephone – including to Grand Wizard, and face of the whole operation, David Duke.
It really is something impressive to hear, and the stories that seemed so outlandish in the film actually happened. It is interesting to note that most of the elements of the film that are not true to life – such as the romantic subplot – are some of the less unusual things to happen, whilst the more ridiculous parts – Stallworth being given duty as personal bodyguard to Duke despite heading an undercover operation into him – are absolutely true.
As a story this is really something to behold. In the aftermath of what feels a pivotal year for racial equality in the western world, it is fascinating to hear the workings of a different world – one where mobilisation against these racist elements was in its infancy. It is also stunning to see how many elements are not so different. The USA has now had a black president, and yet under Trump we have seen that both overt and ingrained racism is still a factor in so much of American life.
As a book, it is not always quite so successful. Stallworth is a very capable writer, but not excellent. There are several points at which he repeats the same story, often within a few pages of the last time he told it. There are moments where the action becomes a little muddled. I think this is probably more a failure of the editor than anything else, but it left me with a conclusion that I rarely come to with books – the film is better. The film is funny, yet doesn’t step away from the heavy stuff, and is gripping in a way that the book does not quite manage.
This is being a little harsh on the book perhaps, and maybe the fact that I saw the film first made all the difference, but it does not take too much away from a good book. It is worth reading even if simply for the quite moving and real recollection of the death of Martin Luther King Jr. His description of the loss felt is incredibly real, and captures the moment quite beautifully, and is well worth checking out.
I wouldn’t want to dissuade anyone from reading this book, but I would certainly be more likely to point you in the direction of the award winning film that it spawned. You will not regret it.