'Hate Is Just Exhausting': Growing Up With—and Running Away From—the Ku Klux Klan

The daughter of a KKK Grand Dragon discusses life with the Klan, how she escaped, and the state of hate today.
Author:
Publish date:
Jvonne and Joel Hubbard.

Jvonne and Joel Hubbard.

Earlier this month, the Federal Bureau of Investigation released its annual hate crime report, reporting that the number of hate crimes committed in 2017 was 17 percent higher than the previous year. Although the FBI's report does not offer any explanation for this increase, the role of white nationalism is apparent, especially when considering the victims (mostly black and Jewish) and the perpetrators (mostly white and Christian).

As appalling as the FBI report is, it's also quite intangible—a mere compilation of statistics. The most lasting and profound insights into white nationalism can be gleaned from those who've experienced its grip firsthand. To that end, Jvonne Hubbard's memoir, White Sheets to Brown Babies, released earlier this year, is a harrowing and invaluable resource.

Hubbard's memories of white nationalism date back to when she was five years old. Her father, Joel, began to hold meetings of the Ku Klux Klan at her childhood home outside of Asheville, North Carolina, and would eventually become a "Grand Dragon" (Klan-speak for a local leader). He would also impose his ideology upon Jvonne, dressing her in white robes and Confederate caps and encouraging a hateful disposition toward her black classmates. Ultimately, Jvonne rejected her father and his doctrine, moving out of the house and excommunicating herself from the family.

Pacific Standard recently spoke to Jvonne about life with the KKK, as well as the recent resurgence of white nationalism and how to best combat it.

section-break

In White Sheets to Brown Babies you mention that, shortly before your father began hosting KKK meetings at your childhood home, he lost his job. Do you believe there's a relationship between downward economic mobility and the appeal of white nationalism?

Absolutely. There is a lack of economic opportunity for much of the country, and that breeds resentment for many. It leaves people pointing fingers, angry and blaming. Economic hardship directly contributed to the hate and anger in my childhood home. In my case, my father was also an alcoholic—another problem that disproportionately affects poor communities. Alcohol was both a problem itself and a catalyst for further troubles. He seemed driven to commit violence and spew hatred, and he was fueled by anger and alcohol.

From your memoir, it sounds like your father's involvement with the KKK was well known to other family members, particularly your paternal grandparents, uncle, and aunt. You don't describe them as being involved in the movement, but they also don't appear to try to dissuade your father either. What do you think kept them from becoming involved, and why didn't they try to talk him out of it?

On my father's side of the family, there were some that personally held racist views and there were others that went along to get along. My grandfather—my dad's dad—worked as a prison guard and often came home with stories of black prisoners that showed his true colors regarding race. We lived beside my paternal grandparents, and they called the cops on my dad many times when his gatherings—glorified alcohol-fueled parties—raged into the night. They did not approve of all the trouble-causing and chaos in general, and this view was shared by other members of the family.

Christmas in the Hubbard household.

Christmas in the Hubbard household.

Still, my family members didn't disapprove of his way of thinking enough to say or do something about it. My father was the charismatic leader of the entire dysfunctional family. Their lives often revolved around his dramas. When he roared, everyone cringed in their corners. It's worth noting that my father was not the only member of the family to don a robe in membership of the KKK, but I'm unable to reveal the identities of others out of concerns for my personal safety.

It was only after being shot multiple times in a domestic dispute that your father supposedly disavowed white nationalism, but you discovered those sentiments seething to the surface again when people began demanding the removal of the Confederate flag from state grounds following the massacre at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. Do you believe there's much difference between white nationalists and so-called "neo-Confederates?"

To me, it seems like white nationalists and neo-Confederates have the same outlandish agenda: to keep stoking the flames of something that is, and should be, dead and gone. I'm not sure I can point to any other point in history where a failed rebellion is allowed to keep flying its "battle" flag without it being considered treason. Freedom of speech is one thing, but when your cause directly threatens the well-being of other citizens, it's no longer a cause we should take seriously.

Furthermore, it astounds me that some Confederate flag supporters claim to be American patriots. How can that be? If you just said you stood with the Confederate flag—the symbol of our deepest division—how can you simultaneously stand as a patriot supporting the American flag and country? That's an obvious and direct contradiction.

These groups are all derivatives or subgroups with the same ideals and basic belief at their core: that the white race is superior to other races.

For some time now, antifascists have been researching and publishing the identities of white nationalists, as well as organizing popular demonstrations against them. Do you see these as effective tactics in combating white nationalism?

Amid Charlottesville, when folks on Twitter were singling out and tagging men from an image of the first night's gathering, I believe this was an effective tactic. From my experience, white nationalists are most rattled when people organize direct responses and demonstrations against them while they are out demonstrating their hate. Anything to weaken them in that moment is critical.

Their brand of domestic terrorism needs to be checked not just by those who see themselves as involved in the antifa movement, but by the common, everyday citizen, who hopefully finds such domestic terrorism appalling. Our most effective tactic is forming a critical mass. We need every individual to call out and stand up to hate speech and actions that are fueled by intolerance.

With that said, I also know this: The modern Klan are a hate-filled, violent, chaos-loving, gun-toting cult, and we cannot hope to abolish that kind of crazy with peace, love, and civility, because they have no capacity to understand that method. One can't always take the high road. Sometimes you have to meet them head-on, even when it falls into the trenches.

A young Jvonne Hubbard poses with American and Confederate flags.

A young Jvonne Hubbard poses with American and Confederate flags.

Despite your father's beliefs, you ultimately rejected white nationalism. How were you able to escape it? What would you say to people still involved?

My worldview is this: I was born into this world, as we all are—without prejudice—and I already had love in my little heart before the adults in my life attempted to taint me with their ugly, hateful indoctrination. They never could fully extinguish my light with their darkness, and as soon as I was no longer a child, I journeyed farther and farther away from my family, mentally, emotionally, intellectually, and geographically, making my own way in the world without them.

I reflect often on my circumstances and how I escaped everything I knew, and today I believe it all came down to listening to that inner voice we all have—the one that makes us feel uncomfortable or even exhausted when we act out of hate. I'm not sure that I believe love is stronger than hate, but hate is just exhausting. Paying attention to how I felt when I acted, and what my inner voice was telling me, helped me move in the other direction.

To people still involved in circumstances such as these, I would say this: You have to be willing to walk away from everything you've ever known for the greater good of your own health and well-being. A life of hate, violence, and trauma accomplishes nothing but the wasting of precious time. The truth is, we are all exactly the same in value to this impartial universe, where we are merely beings made of flesh that will turn back to dust after this brief experience. That is everyone's fate, no matter their skin color. Let that sink in, and then tell me you have any valid reasons to hate.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Related