Ellison’s bio a cutting-edge tale of resisting bias religious and racial
By Dwight Hobbes
Unequivocally a singular success, Congressional Rep. Keith Ellison is one of the more fascinating figures in contemporary politics — indeed, an unprecedented, historic presence. Anyone who doesn’t believe he’s capable of becoming the second Black president of these United States needs merely consider this: How likely was it that with the country still rankling from 9/11, he accomplished a virtually unthinkable feat — becoming the first Muslim elected to Congress?
My Country ‘Tis of Thee: My Faith, My Family, Our Future (Gallery Books/Karen Hunter Publishing, $25) is a newly published memoir cum biography and, whether you admire or abhor his consistently controversial stands on hot-button issues — for instance, the proposed mosque at ground zero, downtown Manhattan site of Al-Kaida’s 2001 terrorist attack on America — the book is a significant, definitively informing work that belongs in the library of every American — Black, White, Brown, Muslim, Protestant, Catholic, whatever — who wishes to know what he or she is talking about when they discuss the consequence of Keith Ellison.
It should surprise no one that a significant amount of the material here concerns itself with Ellison’s devotion to his religion. Along with being the first Muslim to hold his office, he historically is strongly vocal about Muslim Americans getting a fair shake in society.
“Our new national stain,” he comments, “is hatred of Muslims… That is not the American way. I can’t begin to list how many American Muslims have told me stories of how they were humiliated, snatched off airplanes, harassed on their jobs or fired because of their faith.
“Mosques have been burned, vandalized and picketed… [In] places like Lower Manhattan and Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn and Murfreesboro, Tennessee, the law is deemed irrelevant.”
He points out what can hardly be denied. Since the 2011 attack, there are those who’ve made it their business to be uptight about Muslims to the point of xenophobic paranoia. And, as he notes, avenues on the Internet immeasurably aid and abet virulently widespread race hatred.
In this day and age of imagined social progress, a Dearborn, Michigan pastor named Terry Jones, Ellison documents, held a 2011 book-burning of the Quran. “This boneheaded move was akin to a Chicago neo-Nazi group’s threat in 1977 to march through Skokie, Illinois.” It also backfired, blowing up in Jones’ face. “The people of Dearborn stood up against him,” regardless of their respective color or religions.
There is considerably more to Keith Ellison than his religion, but you have to wait through his stumping on behalf of Muslims for him to reflect on it. To shore up making much to do about being Muslim, the author pads.
Secondarily he refers to being born in Detroit and living in Minneapolis, the land that launched him as a formidable asset — an educated, articulate, handsome and well-dressed attorney — for a disenfranchised community, increasingly perceived as a David from North Minneapolis going up against the Goliath of politics as a usual. He broadens the scope by also referring to AIM, the legendary American Indian Movement, citing such revered elders as Clyde Bellecourt and Russell Means. It is, to be sure, a book that confronts social discrimination at large as well as its impact on Muslims.
When Ellison was a freshman senator, I bagged the choice assignment to shadow him for Minnesota Law & Politics and got a good look at the personal power that has propelled him to, overused a term though it may be, yes, greatness. He has an ability to cleanly and clearly focus, waxing longwinded without even minimally digressing or losing the listener’s attention.
And tough questions, though they made his aide uncomfortable, were curve balls he would wind up and hit out of the park without so much as blinking an eye. This quality doesn’t completely translate to the book. The writing style is rather unremarkable considering that Ellison is an enormously effective orator.
However, it doesn’t put the reader to sleep and never loses you. There is a flow, not terribly exciting, but nonetheless interesting enough to keep you with it.
My Country ‘Tis of Thee: My Faith, My Family, Our Future without question is a must-read for the Twin Cities intelligentsia and, beyond, for Americans in general who have a vested interest, positive or negative, in just how much difference Keith Ellison inexorably does or doesn’t eventually make for America. It certainly is what you could call a sign of the times.
This nation remains resolutely racist. Yet, it has evolved past the day and age of opinionated essayists on the order of say, James Baldwin, Jill Nelson, or a cultural predecessor of Ellison’s and immortal force for social change, Malcolm X.
Where the writings of these other greats flew in the face of such stubbornly stalwart conservatism and sadly characterized the U.S., marking it as the most powerful country in the world as well as the most morally bankrupt, this arrives in an era where high schoolers will be doing it for book reports and college students will be killing themselves to be first among their peers to treat it as a cutting-edge subject and impress the hell out of instructors with their interpretive acumen. In short, it will be well received as what it is, a landmark.
You probably want to hotfoot it down to the bookstore — or place an order at your favorite Internet retailer —before they run out of copies. Because Keith Ellison’s My Country ‘Tis of Thee: My Faith, My Family, Our Future has bestseller stamped all over it in block letters.
Dwight Hobbes welcomes reader responses to P.O. Box 50357, Mpls., 55403.
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