It’s only my third month of being part of a virtual book club but it’s already given me an excuse to read books that I’ve always wanted to. This month’s selection is another that I’ve been interested in but would never have read off my own back. Mostly because I always thought it would be a letdown. When this was suggested as a possible book, it was picked by someone who had seen the film. Now, I enjoyed Spike Lee’s adaptation of the book as much as the next person but I also knew that a lot of the plot had been made up. The bomb plot, for example, was not part of Ron Stallworth’s story but had been added for the film. I suspected that the person who put it forward was under the impression that the film was accurate. After all, she had described it as “shocking content (of the film was anything to go by)”. When it came to the vote, I went with another choice but was outvoted. I’m not complaining, merely stating a fact. I got my copy of the book and started to read. Boy, was it a bit of a slog.
Black Klansman is the memoir of retired police officer Ron Stallworth. Stallworth was the first Black officer hired by the Colorado Springs Police Department. As a young cadet, he was drawn to the stories of the undercover Vice detectives and would often beg to become part of the team. After his first undercover mission at an event that saw activist Kwame Ture speaking at a nightclub. By 1979, Stallworth was working undercover and gathering intelligence. after noticing an advert the Ku Klux Klan in a local newspaper, Ron got in touch. This opened the door for Ron and a fellow officer to infiltrate the KKK in Colorado Springs. Ron would be the voice on the phone and Chuck would deal with face-to-face. What happened is an unbelievable story that sees a Black police officer become a member of the KKK and have regular contact with the Grand Wizard himself, David Duke.
The problem with this book isn’t that the story isn’t interesting because it is. It’s just that Ron Stallworth writes like a police officer. There is something so clinical and detached about the writing that makes it difficult to engage with. It’s very factual and dense at times, which makes reading it something of an effort. Although, there are also plenty of moments when Stallworth goes off on tangents that aren’t strictly relevant. Like his personal grievance with his old boss. It might have been included to give a bit of colour but it wasn’t essential to understanding the plot. Stallworth also repeats himself a lot. I appreciated that he was trying to make sure that readers would understand everything but he often recaps more than necessary.
He also contextualises quite a lot. There were a lot of racist and anti-racist groups coming together at that time and, at times, it can just amount to a lot of abbreviations on the page. Stallworth tries his best to give a bit of history to these groups but it does kind of bog the narrative down. I feel like it would have been easier to give the names of the groups and offer the context as a footnote or something. There are a lot of complex relationships to get to grips with and it can often be a bit too overwhelming. However, I understand that this comes from a place of getting every detail correct and thinking of his audience. Stallworth is clearly a stickler for getting the details right, which is to be expected from a retired cop. I guess he’s just never really had to think about writing for this kind of audience before.
The book was at it’s most interesting at the start and towards the end. Seeing the conditions that Ron faced a new Black cadet gave a personal insight into how deep racial prejudice ran inside the police at that time. The story of getting his first hat perfectly showed the pushback coming from the attempt to diversify the force. He became a cadet in the early 1970s and its clear that the civil rights movement didn’t do a great deal to change people’s perceptions. Much of the story revolving the infiltration of the KKK is quite slow. At the start, there are plenty of scenes where very little goes on. We hear about several phone calls, a few cancelled cross-burnings, and some general meetings. It’s all interesting but it isn’t until David Duke’s visit that things really start to get interesting.
There are several scenes that I was happy to learn were real and not created for the film. The first is the phone call with David Duke where he tells Ron that you can tell when you’re speaking to a Black man. The second is the photograph Ron took when he was assigned to Duke’s security team. These moments where you see more of Ron’s personality coming through really help to engage with him. It would have been nice to get more of the man behind the badge. I mean this is a Black man who became a member of the KKK. He clearly has a great sense of humour but it doesn’t always come across in his writing. I know that as bookish people, we like to think that the book is always better than the film but I can’t honestly say that this is the case. I know Spike Lee took a few liberties with the truth but the way he links Stallworth’s memoir with modern society is just fantastic. If only he’d have helped out with writing the book.