The Ellison elision: A sidebar

In the spirit of brotherhood I am taking a time out to say two good things about Keith Ellison’s new book, My Country, ‘Tis of Thee. In case you’re keeping score, that’s two more than Publisher’s Weekly has to say about the book. I hope I get credit in heaven.

First, Martin Luther King, Jr., has replaced Louis Farrakhan in the pantheon of Ellison’s heroes. That represents a somewhat surprising kind of progress, and it’s not the only surprise in Ellison’s book. Ellison praises King and disparages Farrakhan throughout the book. (I explore the other surprises I found in “The Ellison elision.”)

Second, Ellison’s portrait of his family in the first two chapters of the book is almost worth the price of admission. Ellison briefly outlines his family history in these chapters, sketching portraits of his mother (Clida) and father (Leonard). Ellison dedicates the book to them, and with good reason. “I was raised by two very different but equally strong-willed personalities,” he writes:

Kids need guidelines and boundaries….While my dad was all grit and push, my mom was there with the hugs…Together they fostered the notion of hard work. That was not just the expectation, it was the rule, and it was accompanied by discipline. There were no time-outs in my home: we got good old-fashioned butt whippings. Yet even though my mom would warn us, “Wait until your father comes home,” we didn’t get many whippings. The threat was usually enough.

Ellison’s father receives more respect than love in Ellison’s portrait. He is a formidable if remote figure of substantial accomplishment. He graduated from medical school and became a psychiatrist at the age of 33 through something like sheer determination. His hard work continued in his medical practice, where he worked fourteen-hour days. Ellison traces his family’s roots in slavery through his father’s lineage.

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. He comes across as a character who enjoyed the finer things in life — in his case, luxury cars and fashionable clothes — while teaching his kids to work for them. Ellison mentions a couple of times that his father was “a lifelong Republican,” though he adds the second time around that he last voted Republican in 1984.

Ellison’s mother is from Louisiana and 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. He mentions his next oldest brother, Brian, most frequently in the book. They are clearly close. He describes Brian as a pro-life supporter of President Bush and a Baptist minister leading a congregation in Detroit.

Here is Ellison’s quick take on the five brothers, himself included:

My oldest brother, Leonard, is a physician. Brian, as you know, is a lawyer and preacher. I, too, practiced law for sixteen years before going into politics. Tony, who is four years younger than I am, is our third attorney, and the youngest, Eric, is lawyer number 4, but he also has a real estate business and is probably the wealthiest among us.

Ellison rightly credits his parents:

My parents are five for five: all of their sons have graduate degrees and are gainfully employed. We are all relatively successful men. Coincidence?

No, not a coincidence, of course, and a shame that it has not had the slightest effect on Ellison’s support for the ever expanding welfare state that has done so much to undermine and supplant the black family.

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