On Sunday night, I received a notification from Facebook that someone had posted to my page for Gospel According to the Klan. I set up the page for my book before the book launched in 2011 to point folks to coverage, reviews, and events. When I noticed the notification, I had to suppress a shudder. These days, the only people who post on my poor book’s page lately are white supremacists who don’t realize the page is dedicated to an academic monograph or the occasional person who threatens to “beat my ass” for me being a Klansman (I’m not a Klan member or a man, but that’s often beside the point).
Sure enough, someone posted a racist meme with images of Donald Trump, hooded Klansman, a white Jesus, and Hitler. The accompanying text declared, “Join the Clan! Vote Trump! America Was Founded As A WHITE NATION! TRUMP 2016! It Is Not Racist To Take Back What God Gave Us!” I took a screenshot and deleted the post. I now have a file with screenshots of racist memes and threats from that page alone, just in case I need a record. I don’t want to think about what that just in case would include.
“I have to deactivate this page,” I tell my partner, “I can’t take this anymore.” (more…)
Last week, two interviews with me about Gospel According to the Klan went live. (Can you believe people still read and want to talk about this book? So awesome.)
The first was a previous interview from 2013 with A. David Lewis on the Klan and zombies, which is now available as a podcast from the Religious Studies Project. Here’s their description:
Many of us only know about the white supremacist group the Ku Klux Klan through film and television, and much of what we see blurs fact and fiction. Distinguishing each side of that messy divide is the prolific Kelly J. Baker, exploring how media portrayals of the hate group have influenced audiences and, in turn, fed back on its own members. This previously unaired interview conducted by A. David Lewis from 2013 sketches out the rise of the KKK on the large and small screen, its relevance to discussions of religious terrorism today, and perhaps even a link to Baker’s other work on zombies in popular culture.
The second is a part of Richard Newton’s lovely Broadcast Seeding podcast. Richard and his Spring 2016 Ethnicity, Gender, and Religion Seminar students asked some great questions about my Klan book (and even some questions about my tattoos that didn’t make into the interview). Here’s the blurb:
Historian and freelance writer Kelly J. Baker joins us to discuss her compelling research on the Ku Klux Klan. Baker shows us how this group’s success in the 20th century speaks volumes about the racist underpinnings of American Protestantism.
And finally, the BTS Center’s Bearings‘ series of essays on racial justice, Standing for Justice, won a DeRose-Hinkhouse Award of Excellence from the Religion Communicators Council. My essay, September 11th, was a part of the series. I’m so glad Bearings editors, Elizabeth Drescher and Alyssa Lodewick, continue to let me write for them.
Kristian Petersen, New Books in Religion, interviewed me about Gospel According to the Klan about a month ago. Happily, that interview is now available in podcast form for anyone who might be interested. This was a wonderful interview, and I highly recommend that other scholars jump at the opportunity to chat with Kristian. Here’s a teaser for the podcast:
In our conversation we discuss the importance of print culture, the communal act of reading, Jesus as the ideal Klansman, the symbolic meaning of the robes, cross, and flag, and the Women of the Ku Klux Klan (WKKK). We end our discussion by looking at the Klan’s legacy of exclusionism and conservatism as a widespread characteristic of American society and how this is manifested in contemporary culture through figures like Terry Jones, who gained notoriety with his call to burn the Qur’an. Kelly does an excellent job of encouraging scholars of religion to reexamine our subjects and tackle issues that make us uneasy and uncomfortable. These topics and individuals are as much a part of religious history as the figures we would want to sit down and have a cup of coffee with.
The interview happened to coincide with my piece for the Atlantic (!) about a Georgia Klan’s attempt to adopt a highway, the rhetoric of love and inescapability of the order’s legacy of hate. Here’s an excerpt:
Last week, a local chapter of the International Keystone Knights of Ku Klux Klan proposed adopting one-mile stretch of highwayin north Georgia. The possibility of Klan members picking up roadside litter and getting credit on a highway sign provoked as much confusion as outrage. One reporter asked, “Is the latest effort to adopt a highway an introduction of a new era of a kinder, gentler Klan or merely an effort to gain attention?”
In public statements, the group’s leaders signaled that volunteer work was part of their message of love. “We love the white race,” April Chambers, secretary of the Georgia Klan, told a local television correspondent. “Why is that so hard for people to understand? But we don’t hate anybody!” In a quote at CNN’s In America blog, Frank Ancona, the imperial wizard of the Traditionalist American Knights of the Ku Klux Klan echoed that sentiment, portraying the Klan as “a fraternal organization” that commits “good works.”
Benevolence, love, and volunteering seem out of place with hoods, robes, and burning crosses. But what may surprise many is that these statements are consistent with the larger history of the Klan, wherein declarations of love are intimately bound to the Klan’s better-known gospel of hate. That paradox holds the key to understanding both the order’s past popularity and its continuing inability to halt its decline.
All-in-all, it was a pretty good end to last week. Now, if I can only meet my deadlines on other projects…
Over at the Bulletin for the Study of Religion blog, there is a “thorough” interview with me on Gospel According to the Klan, methods and pedagogy. There is also a good dose of apocalypticism and zombies minus any discussion of recent spate of news stories about face-eating. Here’s an excerpt:
How did you get started on researching Gospel According to the Klan?
This project grew out of my personal experiences growing up in the South, as well as a natural outgrowth of my academic work. I grew up in a small town in the Florida panhandle. Back in the 1990s, when I was in high school, there was a Klan rally in a nearby town. What I found most interesting about this was the nervousness that everyone seemed to feel, and display, about it. Not just that there might be violence (as it was also said that the Black Panthers planned a rally simultaneously in this same town), but also the attempt to tamp down the tawdriness of the reputation of the Klan, as it might get attached, or re-attached, to these people and places. “It’s in the past… it’s behind us,” was the basic attitude. While many people wanted to nostalgically hold onto some parts of the Southern past, the Klan represented a part of that past from which they wanted as much distance as possible.
As a scholar of religion, I’ve been intrigued by the ways in which groups like this tend to be understood in my field of study. It is often assumed that religious people we do not like are relatively easy to figure out and are thus not worth a lot of study, whereas people we do like are worth knowing more about. More, we tend to assume that ‘bad people’ equate to ‘bad evidence’ that necessarily invokes skepticism, while ‘good people’ equate to ‘good evidence’ that we can take at face value. I’m interested in studying and understanding not only the “unloved groups” themselves, but also how we tend to think about them, how we reify such groups and how so doing obscures much more than it tells us analytically. So, in writing Gospel According to the Klan, I wanted to produce a study that unsettles academic norms as to what counts as acceptable research subjects. What objects are worth study? What are not? Where do we draw those lines? What’s at stake when we do so, when we categorize things as ‘good data’ or ‘bad data’? Quite often these judgments tell us more about the researchers who made them than about their actual subjects.
Well, folks, believe it or not, Gospel According to the Klan has now been out for three months, and slowly, the book is getting some reviews mostly online and at some news outlets. They are mostly good, (and sometimes they are tough). Additionally, I am still getting used the prospect of people reading (and buying) my book. So, here’s what folks are saying:
That said, Baker’s book is an extremely important work. Her analyses of gender, nationalism, and material culture are strong and useful for anyone looking for a model. Furthermore, her use of the periodical literature and analysis of representation and rhetoric offers me a model for my own work with representations of Hindus and Protestants in my sources. The chapters hold their own as individual readings and can be put to use in a number of undergraduate courses while the book as a whole ought to be a part of any seminar on race or nationalism and religion.
Just take the dust jacket off if you read it on an airplane–I discovered that the hard way.
(I feel like that line should be attached to all promotional materials. I included an image of the cover as a quick reminder of why that might be the case.)
At the end of the book, though, Baker steps back from her texts. Suddenly her analysis becomes more pointed. Yes, the Klan had a very short life. But it has to be understood, she contends, as of a piece with other moments of fevered religious nationalism, from the anti-Catholic riots of the antebellum era to modern anti-Islam bigots. Indeed, earlier this year, Herman Cain declared that he wouldn’t be comfortable with a Muslim in his cabinet. It’s tempting to see those moments as Pegram does the Klan: desperate, even pitiful attempts to stop the inevitable broadening of American society. But Baker seems closer to the mark when she says that there’s a dark strain of bigotry and exclusion running through the national experience. Sometimes it seems to weaken. And sometimes it spreads, as anyone who reads today’s papers knows, fed by our fears and our hatreds.
I have called Gospel According to the Klan a brave new book. This is so for two important reasons. Firstly, Baker has exposed something about American cultural history that many of us may not wish to see: namely, that both religion and mainstream society participate in the ugly, even violent, side of American nationalism….Secondly, Baker has also exposed something unpleasant about the rest of us, those who do not concur or sympathize with Terry Jones and feel repulsed by exclusionary religious nationalism (Christian or otherwise): namely, that we have a tendency towards forgetfulness, and towards imagining American history and the American mainstream in ways that reflect our own preferences.
Not too bad so far, I think. I’ll post other reviews and commentary as they become available. Please feel free to post or send any feedback on Gospel directly to me. I would love to hear what other readers think, feel, like, hate, etc. about the book.