An Amazon Best Book of the Month in Literature and Fiction
The award-winning author of The Revolution of Little Girls and Terminal Velocity concludes her grand survey of political activism twenty years later with her provocative new novel
Blanche McCrary Boyd’s first novel in twenty years continues the story of her protagonist Ellen Burns. When Tomb of the Unknown Racist opens in 1999, Ellennow sober, haunted by her activist past, her failed relationshipsis peacefully taking care of her demented mother in South Carolina.
Ellen’s brother, Royce, was a celebrated novelist who, a decade earlier, saw his work adopted by racists and fell under the sway of white supremacy. Ellen thought him dead from a botched FBI raid on his compound. But when his estranged daughter turns up on the news claiming he might be responsible for kidnapping her two mixed-race children, Ellen travels to New Mexico to help her newfound niece. The book chronicles Ellen’s search for Royce, her descent into the dark abyss of the simmering race war in the country, and the confrontation that occurs when she learns the truth about her family’s past.
Tomb of the Unknown Racist is a thrilling novel set in the shadow of the Oklahoma City bombing, the subculture of white supremacy, and deep state government. A family drama set against political and racial struggle, it is a tour de force end to a trilogy by a stunning writer whose work has offered a resonant survey of politics and activism across the American experience.
"Part detective story, part spiritual quest, Tomb of the Unknown Racist explores the intricate world of the white supremacy movement, and the treacherous ways that racism shatters families and spreads its dark roots across America. . . A character both innocent and wise, searching and grounded, [Ellen Burns] sees the worst in the good, and the good in the worst. We need more 'old outlaws' like [her], who try to right the wrongs of the world, even when they’re impossible to change." Hannah Tinti, author of The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley
About the Author
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"You can't put the past behind you. It's buried in you; it's turned your flesh into its own cupboard."
• Claudia Rankine, " Citizen: An American Lyric "
1. The Silent Brotherhood, also called The Order, was a white supremacist terrorist organization reportedly destroyed by the FBI after a shootout and fire in 1984.
2. Robert Matthews, co-founder and leader of the Silent Brotherhood, was the only person actually killed in that confrontation. Other members were arrested.
3. Alan Berg was a Jewish radio shock jock in Denver who was assassinated by the Silent Brotherhood on June 18, 1984.
4. THE TURNER DIARIES (1978) is an apocalyptic novel recounting a future white takeover of the world by a group called The Order. It predicts the extermination of all nonwhites, Jews and homosexuals. William Luther Pierce, a white supremacist leader and theorist, wrote THE TURNER DIARIES and its "prequel", THE HUNTER, under the penname Andrew Macdonald. More than half a million copies of THE TURNER DIARIES have sold since its publication; it is highly valued by many white extremists, and some consider it a kind of revolutionary blueprint.
5. Timothy McVeigh, the ex-soldier who blew up the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City on April 19, 1995, had pages of THE TURNER DIARIES in his car when he was arrested. These pages provided basic instructions for building a fertilizer bomb similar to the one McVeigh used.
6. A month after the Oklahoma City bombing, authorities discovered an unidentified leg in the rubble of the Murrah Building. The existence of this leg was not disclosed for at least another month, and it was later identified in variously contradictory ways.
7. A white supremacist compound continues to exist at Elohim City, Oklahoma. Timothy McVeigh phoned this compound several weeks prior to the bombing, asking to speak to a man named Andy Strassmeier, a German reported to have significant expertise with explosives; he and McVeigh had met at least once before. After the bombing, Strassmeier left the United States without being interviewed.
8. Kenneth Trentadue, a man whom his lawyer brother believes was arrested because he looked like the sketches of John Doe #2, was said by authorities to have hanged himself in his jail cell. (John Doe #2 was the unknown man alleged to have accompanied McVeigh when he rented the Ryder truck.) An independent examination of Kenneth Trentadue's body revealed more than forty wounds and bruises as well as a cut throat; suicide seems an unlikely explanation.
9. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, there were over one hundred armed militias within the United States by the year 2000.
One spring evening in the year 1999 my mother and I were watching Wheel of Fortune , our matching rocker-recliners locked into their forward positions so we could reach our fast food burgers and fries, when a news bulletin interrupted the show: two young children had been kidnapped from a Native American reservation in New Mexico. The announcement was brief but Wheel of Fortune switched straight to commercial. Momma had already guessed surrender to win. "I know I was right!" Dark, shiny smudges marked her hamburger bun since she had painted blue eye shadow on her lips that morning. On the days I took care of her, I let her do whatever she wanted, unless we were going out.
Later that evening, after I had arranged her in the great canopied bed with the white George Washington spread (she was wearing a cotton nightgown embossed with an image of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer) she whispered, "It was the S and the double R combination that gave it away."
"So how did you know the first word wasn't serrated?" Serrated had been my own guess.
Her eyes gleamed up at me, deep in their orbits. "Don't be silly, honey. That word only has two R's, and there aren't enough letters." She called me honey whenever she couldn't remember my name.
Her hair was encased in a pair of white nylon underpants to preserve its shape. I had removed all of her makeup, including the lipstick on one eyelid. Either she had stopped with one eye because she sensed something was wrong or she simply got distracted.
Leaning back against her wedge of puffy pillows, she stared past me through the balcony's closed glass doors toward the lights of the Cooper River Bridge, glittering in the distance. Still fully clothed, I kicked off my hiking boots and settled on top of the covers on the other side of her bed so we could watch the 11 o'clock news together.
The kidnapping in New Mexico was the lead story. A brief video revealed a teary young woman identified as Ruby Redstone emerging through the doors of a hospital Emergency Room. She wore an ankle-length mauve skirt and a white blouse splashed with dried blood, almost like a matching decoration. Her straight black hair was pulled back, and a lemon-sized patch of scalp above her forehead had been shaved and bandaged. She leaned intensely toward the camera. "I beg of you, whoever you are, let my children go unharmed." She was riveting, although my view may have been altered by recognition. Despite her auburn skin, Asiatic eyes and last name, I knew immediately who she was. "Momma," I whispered, "that's Royce's daughter. That's our Ruby, all grown up."
She reached over and patted my hand. "Don't be upset, honey. Don't you worry." In my mother's lovely present, distress was rarely permitted.
"I'm not upset," I lied. I hadn't seen my brother since his child was a baby, but this young woman had the curve of my shoulders, her mouth resembled mine, and her hands seemed bewilderingly familiar. I was too stunned by our physical similarities - and her sudden reemergence in our lives - to respond.
In the early 1980's, my brother Royce had vanished into the white supremacist underworld, sought by the FBI as a possible member of a terrorist organization called the the Silent Brotherhood, or The Order. Unsuccessful in apprehending him, the FBI could not find his Vietnamese lover and their six-year-old child either, although it was assumed that Santane and Ruby were hiding from Royce, not with him. When the private detective I'd hired did not locate them either, I had let the situation drop, because why would Santane have trusted me? The child, though, I had fretted a great deal about their child.
The time I visited them, Royce and Santane and their baby were living peacefully in a cabin in Mendocino, California. In that phase of his life my brother was presenting as a gentle faux-Buddhist who was nurturing his budding family while he wrote his novel, The Burning Chest , using pencils on lined paper. In the evenings their cabin was lighted with oil lamps because Royce eschewed electricity. Before I departed, he took me outside to confide, his face tight with emotion, that he had named their daughter after the old black woman who had cared for us as children. Not long after his novel was published to high critical praise, Royce had suddenly abandoned Santane and Ruby and plunged headlong into the maw of white extremism. It was as if another man had been coiled inside him and sprang forth, full-blown and monstrous.
Because of his novel's critical success, Royce's racist conversion soon invited attention. In an underground newsletter he began writing what he deemed 'Position Papers', and a canny writer at the Village Voice discovered them to produce a front-page piece titled "The Disintegration of Royce Burns" chronicling the rise of white extremist groups, especially the Silent Brotherhood, and my brother's possible connection. The Brotherhood had successfully counterfeited twenty dollar bills, robbed a Brinks truck of several million dollars, and assassinated Alan Berg, a Denver radio host who mocked and baited them. Berg, being Jewish, had been deemed a significant part of ZOG, the Zionist conspiracy they believed was secretly controlling the world. Berg was shot in his driveway, peacefully unloading his groceries.
I had doubted this purported connection between my brother and the Silent Brotherhood because I knew of their 'theoretical disagreements.' In "Position 4" Royce insisted that Hitler's crucial mistake was, in fact, his antisemitism, and that Jews were an essential element of the coming white revolution. Royce, therefore, would have viewed the killing of Alan Berg as a disastrous mistake.
In 1984 the FBI trapped half a dozen members of the Silent Brotherhood, including its leader, in a 'safe house' on Whidbey Island in Washington state, and a shootout took place during which an incendiary grenade set the house ablaze. The group's founder and leader, Robert Matthews, had chosen to remain inside while the house burned to the ground. Most other members surrendered or were captured later, and the FBI proclaimed the Silent Brotherhood effectively disabled. Then, in 1986, a full two years later, the FBI notified us that the remains of another body had been detected in the Brotherhood fire. My brother's identification, we were told with some pride, involved one of the earliest uses of DNA for such a purpose. The box containing Royce's remains troubled me, of course - it's hard to believe in anyone's death without visual proof - and we buried what they sent us in a child-size coffin. Our mother, still cogent and witty at that point, had remarked, through her grief, "Well, I do remember him best when he was small." When I replied, "He'll always be my little brother," she had even tried to smile.
The next morning Momma and I watched the news on the TV in her condo's kitchen while she ate Cheerios with sliced bananas and milk, a ritual she had been clinging to since my childhood. National media were quickly assembling some of Ruby Redstone's background, mainly the fact that her father had been the novelist-turned-racist, my own brother, Royce Burns.
"Momma," I said, "Do you think it's possible Royce is still alive?"
She looked at me blankly and smiled.
According to news reports, Ruby Redstone's husband, a full-blooded Nogalu named Lightman Redstone, he had come home from work yesterday evening to find his wife unconscious and bound with silver duct tape, a strip of skull exposed from a freely bleeding wound, a hammer on the floor beside her. Their children were nowhere to be found, and the car, the child seats still inside, remained in the gravel driveway.
The account that Ruby stumbled through with him and then with local and federal authorities seemed so outlandish it was convincing. White supremacists, she said, had come to her home looking for her lost father. They already knew about her mixed blood and had mocked her, but were infuriated by the sight of the children, River, 2, and Lucia, 4, whose lineage, they said, had been entirely destroyed. Their leader was a tall clean-shaven narrowly built man who said her children were 'the worst kind of mongrels, abominations and sins against God.' Ruby described how she had begged them not to take River and Lucia, who were innocent, but their leader had shouted, "No one is innocent in the land of Nod!" No, she did not know what the land of Nod was, but she thought this attack must involve some kind of blackmail plot against her father. She had never for one minute believed that her father was dead.
Even after I knew a lot more about what had really happened, I couldn't comprehend why Ruby had wanted to bring my brother out of hiding. He was a dangerous, hate-filled man who had abandoned her. Despite her complex motives and dazzling lies, she dragged me out of the serene light of my mother's dementia and into the glare of dreadful public events.