This past January, U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison published his memoir cum manifesto, “My Country, ’Tis of Thee: My Faith, My Family, Our Future.” Published by a big commercial publisher (a division of Simon and Schuster) for a national audience, the book has just been released in paperback.
Star Tribune readers need no reminder that Ellison is a historic figure. The Democrat representing the Fifth District is the first Muslim elected to Congress and the first black member of Minnesota’s congressional delegation. The publication of the book suggests that Ellison has aspirations beyond the minority side of the aisle in the House of Representatives.
Ellison’s book would thus be of interest even if it weren’t interesting in its own right. But it is. Putting to one side the predictable left-wing platitudes that Ellison espouses throughout, the book is of interest both for what it includes as well as for what it leaves out.
Nevertheless, it has attracted amazingly little attention in the local media.
Ellison’s portrait of his family in the first two chapters is almost worth the price of admission. Ellison sketches portraits of his mother (Clida) and father (Leonard). Growing up in Detroit, he writes, “I was raised by two very different but equally strong-willed personalities.” Ellison dedicates the book to them, and with good reason.
Ellison’s father receives more respect than love in Ellison’s portrait. A formidable if remote figure of substantial accomplishment, he graduated from medical school and became a psychiatrist at 33 through sheer determination. His hard work continued in his medical practice, where he worked 14-hour days. Ellison’s father demanded results and instilled respect for education in each of his five sons. One of his father’s mottos — “No mercy for the weak” — gives the title to Chapter 2.
Ellison’s mother is from Louisiana, of Creole descent. Ellison lavishes love on his portrayal of her. An only child, according to Ellison, “she was raised with a ton of love and support.” She gives it back in turn to her children.
Ellison is the middle of five brothers, each a success in his own right. He mentions his next oldest brother, Brian, most frequently. They are clearly close. He describes Brian as a pro-life supporter of President Bush and a Baptist minister in Detroit. Ellison declares with justifiable pride: “My parents are five for five: all of their sons have graduate degrees and are gainfully employed. We are all relatively successful men. Coincidence?” The answer is obviously “no.” His parents deserve the credit he attributes to them.
Beyond his family story, Ellison describes his conversion to Islam. He was brought up a Catholic (the faith of his mother), attending a private Catholic high school. He confides, however, “the religion never spoke to me.”
Ellison relates that he turned to Islam at age 19 as an undergraduate student at Wayne State University in Detroit. Those who wonder how Ellison reconciles his Muslim faith with the social liberalism of the Democratic Party platform, however, will not find much in the way of illumination here.
“If I were Jewish,” Ellison explains, “I would probably be a Reform Jew. If I were Christian, I would be one of those come-as-you-are nondenominational Christians. … Faith is not about expressing what I believe so that the world can see I’m faithful. I don’t believe in following a strict set of rules to prove my love for God or to prove my faith.” According to Ellison, “In Islam, your religion is what you make of it.” He doesn’t identify any sect that comports with his version of Islam.
It’s not the only omission in the book, or the most interesting one. I turned to the book as soon as it was published to discover how Ellison dealt with his long membership in — and his record of activities on behalf of — Louis Farrakhan and the deeply racist, anti-Semitic Nation of Islam in Minneapolis. As late as 1998, for example, Ellison sought the DFL Party’s nomination for state representative as Keith Ellison-Muhammad, a frankly avowed member of the Nation of Islam.
In the book, Ellison rewrites his history to eliminate his involvement with Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam, dispatching his activities down the memory hole. Ellison does not simply clean up the picture. He presents himself as a (biting) critic of Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam, as though it were ever thus.
Ellison writes of Farrakhan, for example: “He could only wax eloquent while scapegoating other groups.” Although he must be drawing on his own experience, Ellison conceals the starkly autobiographical element in his observation: “In the NOI, if you’re not angry in opposition to some group of people (whites, Jews, so-called ‘sellout’ blacks), you don’t have religion.”
Unlike the feelings he expresses for his family, Ellison takes no pride in his involvement with the Nation of Islam. Yet we could profit from his frank discussion of the subject. One can only regret that Ellison isn’t as forthcoming in the book about his involvement with the Nation of Islam as he is about the debt he owes to his mother and father.
Scott W. Johnson is a Minneapolis attorney and contributor to the website Power Line (www.powerlineblog.com).