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Examining the Literature of Hate with Danielle Christmas


September 10, 2019 | Sophia Ramos

Assistant Professor Danielle Christmas discusses her latest book project on the literature of the contemporary American white nationalist movement.

 

Transcript

Philip Hollingsworth:

Welcome to the Institute, a podcast on the lives and work of Fellows and friends of the Institute for the Arts and Humanities at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill. I’m Philip Hollingsworth. In this episode, Sophia Ramos and I speak with Assistant Professor of English and Comparative Literature Danielle Christmas. In our conversation, Professor Christmas discusses her latest project on white nationalist literature and the process of radicalization through the written word.

Sophia Ramos:

Oh, hey, welcome. Thanks for joining us at Hyde Hall. So, I was just talking to you a little bit before we got started. But so this is your fourth year, you’re an Assistant Professor. Can you just give me some background of what you’re, you know, what you’re studying what you specialize in, and your current research?

Danielle Christmas:

My first project is on slavery and Holocaust representation. So post 1945 American novels and movies about slavery and the Holocaust. And I teach on that some, but I also teach courses on lynching representations. And early African American literature. So slave narratives. And my most recent work, the second project, is on white nationalist culture and white nationalist literature.

PH: 

Can you expound upon that a little bit? You should be working on that as a Fellow this spring? Correct?

DC:

Yes. So I’m sort of speaking to other academics, I think that a lot of folks don’t know that there is a really robust literary culture within the white nationalist movement. I also think that we can be lazy about making assumptions about the level of intelligence or sophistication of people in the white nationalist movement. So I found it to be really important to do some firsthand data research and see what they’re saying to each other. I want to know what the stories are that they have to tell about the way this country was formed, and the way that our culture works, some wish fulfillment — so what it is that they’re dreaming about, and what they’d like our culture to look like. So that’s the reading I’m doing. And boy, is it reading.

SR: 

I bet. What are some of the earliest, I guess, you know, cataloged kind of white nationalist literature that you’re looking at?

DC: 

Sure. So I’m looking, the sort of earliest thing that I’m looking at — just to provide a foundation — is Thomas Dixon’s novel The Klansmen. It’s probably the best known, I think it’s 1905, the best known early novel about what could be called like the sort of first wave white nationalist movement. But I’m doing that mostly to get a sense of what it is that people who were — after 1970 — writing white nationalist fiction, were themselves reading and thinking about the stories they wanted to tell later. So I’m primarily looking at post 1970 stuff of white nationalist fiction that people are familiar with, I think, if they know anything, they know The Turner Diaries. So if you’ve heard of no other novel, that is probably what you’ve heard of. You may have heard of it, because Timothy McVeigh had a copy of it in his car pages of it in his car when he was caught so –

PH: 

And The Klansmen was made into Birth of a Nation, right?

DC: 

Absolutely, yeah.

PH: 

How do you kind of navigate that space? It must be pretty difficult to kind of focus on that, because I know doing academic research myself, you have to really deep dive into a subject to really get to know it. So I don’t know what, like number one, how do you cope with that kind of heaviness of your subject area? And how did you get into that? That avenue in the first place? Sure.

DC: 

It’s funny you asked that. I mean, when I remember when I was started doing slavery and Holocaust work, people would say like, how do you emotionally cope with that? And I found it, I mean, that’s, there’s something to answer there. Looking at images of concentration camps gets to be a lot, so I needed to step away or watching films that are documentaries or reenactments were difficult. But I didn’t really know difficult until I started doing this white nationalist work. I get on Stormfront sometimes. I spend some time on the Daily Stormer. I would say maybe three times a week, I’m on some white nationalist website, because it is the living, breathing culture. And it is I mean, it’s sort of shocking to me, I think that there are very few boards you can go on Reddit, where people are talking about like the books to read, you know, the fiction to read, like if you want to get plugged into this movement, but that’s what they’re up to. I mean, they’re recruiting, they’re busy, and I want to know what they’re saying to each other, which requires me to actually log in. I have my fake profile. I’m not telling anybody what the name to that is [laughs]. My fake profile to go on Reddit and poke around and see what they’re saying.

So that gets I mean, it really gets to be difficult. It’s rough. It’s nasty, but somebody’s like, people aren’t born white nationalists. So they get to these websites and someone read that and thought, this is really moving stuff. I want to look more into this. And so there’s something seductive there and it’s worth holding my nose to dig into it. But it gets to be really trying. I think it’s emotionally difficult to admit that there is something so seductive about hate discourse and that this is a moment when people would read something like that and people that we know, right, these are people we’re running into, this isn’t, this is no longer fringe, it’s becoming mainstream. So people that you run into on the street who otherwise seem completely reasonable people would read something like that and think like, man, there’s something to this.

PH: 

Have you pinpointed what might be seductive to that? And what brings people in? Because I mean, for a lot of people, it’s just like, how do you get that far into something like that?

DC: 

Right? I mean, one of the arguments that I’m making, that I think is really important to make, and that has been easier to understand living in the South. I made all sorts of assumptions about people in the South before I lived in the South, right. I thought that they were less — I mean, in a superficial way — thought, like, if you have that accent, you’re not so sophisticated. If you, you know, if you grow up in a mountain community, there’s not a lot of, you know, there’s not a lot of like rich intellectual culture. I had all sorts of nasty assumptions that I was making. And so I had to confront those inner prejudices before I started doing this work. And I think that coming to this work made me realize that I shouldn’t make assumptions about the people who were quote, regular people before they got seduced into the movement. So there are people who seem, who I know, right? Who seemed perfectly nice, and who are probably nice to me, right, like they’re not walking around with horns they are polite to me on the street. If people can’t see me, I’m a black woman. I’m not being recruited to the white nationalist movement, right? Like I’m persona non grata. So, I think the argument I’ve been making and what’s really important to know, I think, is that like, they’re not monsters. It would be easier if they were monsters. And so there is something there that is drawing otherwise nicer, reasonable people to the movement. And I think that the only thing that really pulls people into such a nasty discourse is a great deal of fear. So I think a lot of people are scared. And I don’t think I wouldn’t be so presumptuous to say that I understand the texture of that fear in every way. But part of what I’m looking at in this literature is to see what so much anxiety is about.

SR: 

You were saying you lived in Chicago for 10 years and you know, came to North Carolina. In your research, do you feel like there’s a closer proximity to this kind of literature and research to the South specifically? Are you finding, you know — okay, you’re nodding your head [laughs].

DC: 

Yeah. Yes, I absolutely do. And that’s not because I walk around and think, you know, if I was in Chicago, there would be a lot less white nationalists on the street. In fact, I think what’s happening in this moment is that like, lots more people who you run into in Chicago on the street might be inclined to be interested in this movement. But I think that the South has this sort of cultural history that people in the movement find so inspiring. So when people are historicizing, what white nationalism looks like, or should look like, or when there’s this sort of story about when America, like when America was great, right? When, when America was, when it looked like it should. They’re talking about the South, right? Like the way the South looked, the way that power looked here. And so, and folks who are in the South, I’ve run into people here — my students are very, you know, 82%, I think, of our students at UNC are from North Carolina, something like that — so they are proud to be from North Carolina. And I don’t begrudge them that. So there’s real pride and being from the South here, and there is a strange level of pride that a white nationalist in Michigan feels about the history of the South. Yeah, there’s something there. I feel like I’m in the home base. In some ways.

DC: 

I want to talk about the course that you’re teaching that you talked about earlier.

DC: 

So I’m doing a graduate course on white nationalism, and then an undergraduate course, a 300 level course, on religious slave narratives.

SR: 

Okay, yes. The first one, the religious slave narrative. So that’s a little different than the white nationalist course. But can you explain the undergraduate course because I’m kind of, I want to know, yeah. What do students kind of think about this? You know, this research on how they feel?

DC: 

The religious slave narrative course?

SR: 

Yeah.

DC: 

It’s fantastic. So, I get us out of the classroom. I was just talking to Dean Rhodes downstairs. I mentioned once to her that I take my students to the AME church here on Franklin Street. It was founded — it’s a Black church — it was founded the year that emancipation happened. So it has a history right. And when I get my students out there, most of my students are white students, most of them have never been to a black church. And they get that disconcerting feeling of being conspicuous in a room, right? Like everybody doesn’t look like that, which I actually think in some ways is a really good experience for them. But we, there’s so much to, I mean we do the tour around campus that’s like the sort of African American History of UNC.

Here at UNC, students — when it was an all-male school — men who came here used to bring their slaves here. So there are photographs of this right? Or we can walk around and see a church on Franklin Street that has a balcony because that’s where the slaves used to stand during the church service. That is invaluable. So it’s a really, it’s such a cool site to be doing this primary work, and I think feels like it’s living and breathing in a way for the students that it wouldn’t feel otherwise. But my students are exceptional. I mean, I think that they come in, even if their majors not really knowing what a slave narrative looks like, or sounds like, what’s the purpose of this writing, they don’t know what to expect about the level of intelligence of a slave, writer of a former slave. So this is all, it’s all open questions. And I get these like, unmolded minds, and we get to work together to see what that actually looks like. So we, yeah, I mean, my classes are an adventure. We have a lot of fun together and the students bring the curiosity, if not the mastery of knowledge that makes it a fun experience.

SR: 

Interesting. And can you just give me a little bit of background about the graduate course as well?

DC: 

This is my first time teaching any course about white nationalism. I’m actually, something that’s been just an interesting struggle is the logistics of this. So we’re reading white nationalist fiction. I cannot in good conscience, have students pay money to white nationalist publishers, right? So, I have to get them this writing without breaking, you know, copyright rule. And so it’s, I didn’t realize the calls I would be having to make ethically before the class even started about how to get them the material that we’re reading. And part of the reason I’m doing the research I’m doing is because not a lot of people are talking about this. So we’re mostly doing primary source work and a graduate you know, course in English, we would normally be doing just as much theory as literature. But there’s, we’re going to be doing the theory, we’re going to be sort of making knowledge happen in our classroom where not a lot of thinking has happened about this otherwise. So it’s, it’s unlike anything I’ve taught before. But I’ve, and I think that the students who sign up for this are brave, because it is it’s, you know, it’s a tough thing to talk about right now. It feels treacherous, and it should feel treacherous.

I was explaining to someone the other day I was thinking about writing, and I’m still thinking about writing an op-ed related to white nationalism. But in order to do that, I’m having to deal with the reality that I may very well be doxed. I need to change all of my passwords, I need to set everything to private. And that’s horrifying. It’s not something that I should have to do as a scholar, right? I shouldn’t have to think about threats as a part of my research agenda. So in you know, teaching a course to graduate students on this topic also gives me the opportunity to talk them through that side of being a scholar, like how the outside world does or doesn’t react to the work that you’re doing, and the sort of protecting of yourself that you need to do the self-care and the strategizing. So it will be a very different kind of experience. I’m hopeful. I’m glad it’s a graduate course. I don’t know that I could teach an undergraduate course on white nationalist literature. I don’t think that a 19-year-old is prepared to pick up The Turner Diaries and emotionally handle what, you know, The Turner Diary says and then do rigorous scholarly work with that stuff, right? So this is the right site to do it. I’m asking my 25-year-old graduate students to like be intrepid travelers with me.

SR: 

Can you – we kind of talked about a lot about what you’re doing right now, but specifically for your Faculty Fellowship next spring? Can you give us like a little sneak peek of what you’re working on?

DC: 

Sure. I so um, I am working on chapters of the book that I haven’t written yet. So some of the chapters for the second project I have worked on. Some I haven’t. I think I’m specifically going to be working on the chapters that are the mainstreaming of white nationalist literature and the appropriation of mainstream white national or of mainstream American literature. So white nationalism, men rights movements, folks, incel communities, like totally dig on Chuck Palahniuk and Bret Easton Ellis. I don’t know if you’ve read what they’ve said in the media lately. They have become darlings in a certain kind of way. And in some ways, in ways that I understand but it in lots of ways don’t appreciate, I think that they’re defending what they think is an overreaction, like an over political correctness complaint against these communities. And so they’re, you know, they’re men standing up in defense of what they feel like are vulnerable or unfair critiques. But that just makes their work more attractive to people. So you know, a group of men who are already feeling aggrieved read Fight Club about how like men being men, right? Like create men spaces. There is something to poke into there. And I’m excited to sort of see what there is to say like, these are books that are reviewed in the New York Times and The New York Review of Books and you know, like fancy literature. This is what we read in contemporary lit classes. So when white nationalists are like, you know, fantasizing about slitting the throats of women, and then they read American Psycho. There’s something fascinating happening there. And I also just don’t think that my friends who like Bret Easton Ellis know that they’re enjoying the same book that like, Joe racist over there is enjoying and –

PH: 

They don’t take it as satire, they take it at face value.

DC: 

Absolutely.

PH: 

Like, wish fulfillment or something like that.

DC: 

Absolutely. And that doesn’t mean that we don’t read their work. It doesn’t mean that we, but I think it like, you know, as a lit scholar, my job is to figure out the way that the literature lives and like the shifting life of the work. And it’s living differently than I think in the moment when they wrote it. I don’t think that they wrote it to appeal to white nationalists, but it is satisfactory in a certain way. And so I’m interested in the arc of like, of its value, its use, its place in this culture.

PH: 

Yeah, yeah. I’ve thought about that, too. And that could be like the privilege of like a male to read that and not be like fazed by it. Because I’ve had similar like, some movies that I would like to watch. Like, if I go back and watch them now I’m just like eww.

DC: 

Oh, no, you feel icky. It feels kind of gross and what feels gross sometimes and you didn’t realize at that time how much of a problem something was. So this is completely aside. Like I watched, what was it, The Breakfast Club, like earlier this summer. Which I love, right? Yeah, I loved that movie. So great. I’m in high school, it feels like even though I was very much not in high school in the 80s, it felt so true to me. Right? Yeah. Um, and then I watched the way that Judd Nelson and Molly Ringwald interact in this sort of weird kind of sexual assault that happens in that movie. And we’re all like, this is so adorable and romantic. That does not age well.

PH: 

John Hughes has had some problematic stuff.

DC: 

Right? And so like, should we feel guilty now? Should we not watch it now? And this is the stuff you know, I teach a class and I, in some ways, even if I’m not looking to become some moral educator, students end up looking to you and like feeling a level of guilt about recognition that they didn’t have and asking permission, whether or not they need to, about like, is it okay, if I still like this? Right? Should I still watch The Breakfast Club? I watch it. I may not now if I’m honest. But yeah, like if I was still in that taste, if I was in an ’80s kind of mood, right? I would watch it with an awareness of what’s happening that I didn’t have.

PH: 

Yeah

DC: 

And like, take that moment, know that there’s a problem and maybe still have a good Tuesday night. Tuesday’s my day of the week right now [laughs]. A good Friday day. Yeah, it’s definitely this sort of — I mean, I think that we’re all wrestling right now as like everyone gets more woke or whatever, like, should I feel — I know [laughs]. But, like setting that word aside, I mean, like, with the turn of history, we become more aware of like the problems embedded in what we used to enjoy. Does that mean that we like assign everything to the trash can doesn’t mean that we should feel gross about having enjoyed it or still enjoying it. I like Quentin Tarantino, so like, I have no moral superiority when it comes to not enjoying like women being chopped up and a Bret Easton Ellis novel because like I have fun watching Django Unchained. I still flinch at the scene where the slave is being chewed up by a dog, I might turn my eyes, right? And I know like, there are things to think about the way like what Quentin Tarantino says outside of the life of that movie, how I think that he deals with things or engages race, but like, it’s sort of just a fun movie. I don’t want my students to leave my classroom with like, a new sense of what they feel should be white guilt or intellectual guilt, right? Like now that I’m a college student, or like, now that I realize like everything that white male culture has wrought, I should feel terrible, like, not really. That’s not valuable. It’s not useful. But it just sort of means like you have a moment of pause, acknowledgment and then like, keep it moving. And maybe your tastes will shift. They will. I mean, the more time goes on, the more you’ll notice.

SR: 

Do you think that your research is ever going to move into some kind of like strictly social space where you’re kind of like looking at that or like, what does that kind of look like this digital space with your work?

PH: 

Because I was just listening to something, it’s like the means of radicalization and not just like through like literary texts or like books. It’s meme culture or these online forums and stuff like that.

DC: 

Absolutely. No, absolutely I, so part of my project is also to look at meme culture. You cannot look at white nationalism without looking at like, meme culture. You have to know who Pepe is, you have to know what 4chan is and what happens there. So like, if I wanted to do this work in a real engaged way, there’s no way I couldn’t know what that was and shouldn’t know or mustn’t know, like, what the next thread is on Stormfront after they read the thread about how you should totally get into a Tolkien novel. So do I see my work moving that way? I mean, so in my like, in my fantasy of what my career will look like, right after I’m finished with these projects and have gotten the like, the fanciness that is tenure, I –you know — I think that there are different ways that your life as a scholar can look. You might become like an administrator — groaning at that possibility I don’t want to be an administrator — some people dream of that. I would like to be a public-facing scholar. I don’t think that that looks like for me, doing this sort of digital work that I think some real amazing engaged scholarship is. But I think it is getting out in the community or speaking to people, and like, doing what I think is sounding an alarm and not an alarmist way. So not like, everybody the sky is falling, the racists have come, oh, but like “Hey, did you know?” Right? So, because as much as I like to think that I’m making all the difference in the world, I — you know — we at UNC are not going to change the world ourselves, alone, we’re going to send out like, our little students into the world better formed, and they’re gonna make a difference.

But if you’re not an undergrad or undergraduate age, like you still deserve an alert. And I don’t think that the answer is like, hey, everybody needs to go pick up the next white nationalist novel. I’ll like suck it up for us. And stand up and say like, did you know? So The Turner Diaries, this is the scene I tell everyone about there’s the crescendo of the novel. Again, I don’t mind if I’m ruining this for you. I wouldn’t recommend that you pick this up. It’s the day of the rope. So in The Turner Diaries, The Day of the Rope is the day when justice comes down, right? So all of the, you roll your eyes Philip [laughs].

DC: 

All of the men who are like the righteous fighters have come and they’re going to kill all of the Blacks and Jews. So they hang all of these people, but the people who get it worse and like, this is the thing nobody knows that I think is important. It’s not just them. The people who get it worst are the white women who betrayed them. So they’re the ones who have their throats slit. They’re the ones who wear signs calling them race betrayers. And it’s because that is the greatest, so like, if somebody notices like white nationalists don’t seem to dig women that much, right? Not even white women. There’s not as if they’re like treating white women super well. What is it, it’s this like, kind of nasty sense of like what white women aren’t doing for their men. I mean, the anxiety of white nationalism is so masculine and not in a “men are so bad” kind of way.

But it just so happens that right now, the texture of that anxiety is a sort of like disenfranchisement of what it means to be a man, what it means to be a white man, what this, what that you know subjectivity used to hold in this culture and what it doesn’t hold anymore. So I think it’s really important for people to know like, it’s not like they’re out there beating the drum of like, let’s kill all the Black people. Some people are saying that, but they’re saying it after, like, those white sluts who are doing this to us and are talking, you know, like, it’s, and that’s crucial, I think to know. It’s also crucial to know that the big villains in these novels almost universally are Jews, it’s not Black people. The specter of the Jew who you don’t know, right? Like, you Philip I don’t know, might you be. Like they could be hiding anywhere. And they’re the ones who are smart enough to be controlling all of the brown people who are doing the bad things. So when everybody’s guns are taken, it’s the Jews who are orchestrating it and have their Black and brown minions doing the work. But we broadly you know, Black and brown people aren’t smart enough to do it. We need like, the like the hidden cabal of Jews to control this. I think it’s important that people know that. And it’s not I mean, I don’t think

PH: 

It’s like the vampire narratives.

DC: 

It is in a way and I think when people see Unite the Right or they start complaining about this contingency of like Trump voters, right? Because that’s really what happens, a lot is people sort of, I mean, there are ways to support Trump and not be a white nationalist, but there’s a vocal community of white nationalists who are really eager to embrace his agenda and to shape it in a certain kind of way. But you can’t poke at them and say like, I don’t like what those people believe if you don’t know what they believe, right? That is so crucial. And so I think that’s why my version of a public-facing scholarship looks like just giving an alert, like, did you know. Because I think it’s worth knowing, it’s really worth knowing.

SR: 

Yeah. Thank you. That was great. Yeah.

PH: 

I have one more question we ask everyone. Yes, that’s a book that changed your life.

DC: 

Oh, man, you’re asking a lit professor [laughs]?

SR: 

We got time [laughs], take your time.

DC: 

Yeah, no can I have a minute for this one [laughs]? So this is — since we can do like the weird and unexpected choice — when I was in high school, I was one of, I didn’t have any Black friends, really. I was in an honors program in high school that didn’t have any people who looked like me in it. So I remember feeling really isolated and being picked on by the Black folks in school who are like, you know, you’re acting a certain way, or just sort of feeling out there and feeling like I should know something about racism. But I didn’t have a community to explore that with. So I read the book Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria, and it like blew my mind, right? Like my 16-year-old mind was like, holy cow, this is how race works. And like, just introduced the idea of the way that race and culture and power worked in this super-accessible way to a teenager. It made me understand my place in the world in a way that it was hard to do, because I felt isolated. So it was really, it was a super powerful book. You can’t tell any of my colleagues I said that though. I should be thinking like a classic [laughs].

PH: 

Those are actually better answers because some people will go like, some book they read in graduate school.

DC: 

No, they’re not as fun, right?

PH: 

And a lot of times if they don’t do, if they don’t go that route, they’ll either say something they read as a child or like high school like because those are really formative years that really-

DC: 

Absolutely.

PH: 

there’s, there’s like bifurcations in your path that you might take one way or the other.

DC: 

It’s worth saying, I mean, I think we end up in graduate school because we read something-

PH: 

Yeah.

DC: 

That made us like thinking people before we got there, I have to say — because I’m going to send this to my high school English teacher — I read that book, not for that class but while I was still with her. She moved to North Carolina. I saw her after like 20 years or something of not seeing her and that like made such a difference. So she was a person, Ms. Clifford, hello.

PH: 

Awesome.

SR: 

Hi Ms. Clifford.

PH: 

Good, good. That’s great. Well, thank you very much. This is great.

DC: 

Thank you guys.

[music] 

PH: 

Check back at iah.unc.edu for the latest news on our Fellows and upcoming events at Hyde Hall. You can find all our episodes of the podcast on our website as well as iTunes SoundCloud and Spotify. Please like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter at iah_unc.


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