The Conservative View
Michael Ondaatje is helping bring to light a neglected chapter in the story of the black American struggle.
A politically aware mother and an astutely chosen birthday gift were the triggers for Dr Michael Ondaatje's fascination with African American history.
"My mother always encouraged me to be interested in matters of social justice," Ondaatje, a lecturer and researcher in the school of Humanities and Social Sciences, says.
"For my 16th birthday she gave me a book, which I still have, called Martin & Malcolm & America, which was about Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and the civil rights movement. I read it and found it was pretty interesting stuff."
Ondaatje went on to study American history and during his Honours year at the University of Western Australia came across the little-explored subject of black conservatism.
"As a young student I was intrigued," he recalls. "My first reaction was: what could black Americans possibly want to conserve?
"The more I looked into it, the more it fascinated me. These people seem to have been largely airbrushed out of black history because they don't fit the heroic liberator mode.
"There has been a tendency to see them either as anomalies or morally perverse types unworthy of attention."
Ondaatje wrote a thesis on the career of conservative Supreme Court judge Clarence Thomas. He completed a PhD in African American history in 2007 and came to the University of Newcastle the following year as a teaching and research academic.
Ondaatje describes his position as part of the renowned team of historians in the Faculty of Education and Arts as "my dream job". His research is strategically aligned with one of the two current programs within the Humanities Research Institute - Violence and Social Order - which seeks to develop new conceptual frameworks for understanding violence and social order in historical, political and sociological contexts.
He is also an enthusiastic educator who begins each session with music pertinent to the lesson and has in a short career already picked up a number of teaching excellence awards.
Last year he published the book Black Conservative Intellectuals in Modern America, which received favourable reviews in scholarly journals and climbed into the top 20 on the international list of best-selling titles on US history.
With a research grant from Sydney's US Studies Centre, he is working on a biography of a little-known but influential African American named William H. Councill.
Councill was an emancipated slave who symbolically built a school on the same land on which he and his family had been sold into slavery years earlier. He founded a university for black students in Alabama and was proactive in bettering conditions for African Americans but was also regarded as accommodating of white supremacy.
"He seems to be a person of almost split personality; he engaged with the reality of race on a daily basis but then had a tendency to be quite sycophantic in the company of whites," Ondaatje says.
The historian hopes a comprehensive study of Councill's life will shed light on the roots of black conservatism and the extent to which those conservatives were motivated by self-help or survivalist instincts.
"We don't have to agree with what these people said or did but it is an interesting and important phenomenon and it challenges the one-dimensional view of black history that implies that all African Americans felt the same way about freedom," he says.
Ondaatje, whose lineage is Sri Lankan, has occasionally been challenged about what authority he has to write on black American history but he argues that there is no ownership of history.
"I think history is a democratic discipline that encourages people to examine other people's circumstances," he says. "And the so-called tyranny of distance can sometimes be a good thing. It helps you bring a fresh approach."