Racism is always an ugly and frightening thing to behold. When it's cloaked in respectability and hidden behind a liberal pretext that allows it to flourish and grow stronger, it becomes very dangerous. In the political thriller Fuhrer's Heart: An American Story by first-time novelist James D. Ward, racism leads to intrigue and ultimately murder.
Ward's inspiration for the book stemmed from the time he spent in New Orleans as a political science professor at the University of New Orleans during the 1990s. It was then that former Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard David Duke won a seat in the Louisiana House of Representatives through votes he received from middle- and upper middle-class white voters.
"Part of the concept of the novel comes from David Duke and how many people in Louisiana were attracted to his magnetism or his message," says Ward, who now is associate professor of political science at Mississippi University for Women. "According to opinion polls, there were many others who were hidden supporters of David Duke."
In Fuhrer's Heart, Michael Woods, an African American who earns a doctorate, is hired to teach and conduct research at the prestigious Institute for Public Policy at a New Orleans university. He is highly qualified and performs well, but soon finds his path to tenure blocked by colleagues intent on making him an example of ineptness attributable to his race. The white supremacists who have infiltrated the university, which has an unblemished reputation as a liberal and forward-thinking institution, are highly connected in all segments of society and are bent on covertly promoting their racist agenda.
Woods finds he is the only person who has a chance of exposing them -- if he can keep himself and those he cares about alive long enough to find justice. The story takes readers through a racial discrimination suit, FBI agents involved with a secret white supremacist group, politicians and academic leaders who publicly support equality while secretly promoting racism, collusion among professional colleagues, murder and, of course, romance. The backdrop for all of this is New Orleans.
The 133-page book is a quick and engaging read that presents an insight into how racism has endured through the ages. Ward's background in academia and his stint as a news reporter for WCBI-TV in Columbus, Miss., are evident in both the writing style, which sometimes is academically formal, and his ability to tell a compelling story. The author emphasizes that it's just a story and not based on real events.
"It is just a novel, and it is fiction," he says. "These things did not happen. However, that whole experience in the 1990s, the whole Duke phenomenon and the idea that there were people all across the whole socio-economic strata who were hidden supporters of Duke enabled me to visualize the possibility of such a story."
The "Duke phenomenon" did not end with his seat in the Louisiana Legislature. He went on to make unsuccessful bids for governor of Louisiana and the U.S. Senate. Duke's Web site claims that more than 60 percent of "European American voters of Louisiana have voted for Rep. Duke in statewide races." Duke holds a doctorate in history from MAUP University in Kiev, Ukraine, teaches in Eastern Europe and is an author.
The story of Michael Woods also may not be over. Ward says he is considering follow-ups, but declines to give clues as to what the story lines might entail or when a new book might come out. "There are other books in the works with him," the author says of the Woods character. "He will still be in education. He will still be a professor." Partly because education is something Ward knows, and he plans to continue his career in teaching.
"Aspiring writers are advised to write about what they know best," he says. "So the novel is set in academia and deals with hidden racism and the role the news media play in our everyday lives.
"At this point, I'm a professor/novelist, professor being first. My university job is still my main job."
Fuhrer's Heart: An American Story (Xlibris Corporation, $20.99 paperback, $30.99 hard cover) is available at Octavia Books, Garden District Books, Barnes & Noble at Tulane and the UNO Bookstore. Watch Gambit Weekly's listings for future book signings and author appearances.