Families seldom admit wrongdoing," an older relative told Edward Ball when he began the inquiry that would become his new book, "Slaves in the Family."
A family reunion in 1993 had convinced Ball that he must confront his family's slaveholding past, and learn about the other families who had lived on the Ball plantations. "I brought out a photograph of Isaac the Confederate, Dad's grandfather, and the faceless crowd of slaves gathered before my eyes once more," he writes.
The Balls of South Carolina had been rice planters, owning up to 4,000 slaves at one point. Their descendants shared none of this wealth -- the land along the Cooper River outside Charleston had been sold off long before Ball was born to an Episcopalian priest and his wife. But Ball felt he was accountable -- his word -- for what had happened in his family.
His book begins:
"My father had a little joke that made light of our legacy as a family that had once owned slaves. 'There are five things we don't talk about in the Ball family,' he would say. 'Religion, sex, death, money, and the Negroes.'
" 'What does that leave to talk about?' my mother asked once.
" 'That's another of the family secrets,' Dad said, smiling."
But there also were prevailing myths in the Ball family, stories that passed from generation to generation. These stories maintained that the Balls were benevolent slaveowners who eschewed miscegenation. Ball's research would give the lie to these myths, disturbing some of his relatives. "You're digging up my grandfather to hang him," said one older cousin, who wanted nothing to do with Ball's project.
But Ball was far more interested in developing a history of the Ball slaves, whose descendants exist in far greater numbers than the Balls -- 75,000 to 100,000 by the end of this century, by his estimate. Ultimately, he traveled all the way to Sierra Leone, where he met with the descendants of slave traders.
A former columnist for the Village Voice, Ball made a 35-minute radio feature about his family, "The Other History," for National Public Radio in 1994. This was expanded into "Slaves in the Family" (Farrar Straus and Giroux, $30), published last month.
Ball, 39, will be at Bibelot-Woodholme at 7: 30 p.m. on Monday to discuss his book. We caught up with him in his native Savannah, Ga., at the beginning of a book tour that has gained wide interest, with coverage in Time magazine and an appearance on "The Oprah Winfrey Show."
Sun: From the beginning, there seems to have been some remarkable serendipity in your search. You go to this black genealogy group, the Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society, and there's a woman, "Denise Collins," whose great-grandmother, Katie Heyward, was a Ball slave.
Ball: That meeting was one of the remarkable encounters of the project and it still strikes me, it still surprises me. I think that in doing this work, people have made my work easier. I've been encouraged by many strangers who have helped me, who believe that it's important for the health of both whites and blacks that someone talk honestly about the slaves' past and the legacy of the plantations. Anonymous contributors provided me with information, opened doors and made suggestions.
Anonymous and pseudonymous -- Why did you allow several people to use false names in the narrative, including that descendant of Katie Heyward?
Living people have the right to privacy, and I respect that. Dead people have no right to privacy. Legally speaking.
What about ethically speaking?
Ethically speaking, I think that the needs of millions of black Americans to understand what happened to their families and the needs of white Americans to come to a place of acknowledgment about the legacy of slavery in America outweigh the ethical restraint that you might have when talking about dead people. I'm talking about my own family in this case.
Do you feel that you did, in fact, dig up your cousin's grandfather and hang him?
I believe, actually, by contrast, that I have treated everyone I wrote about with enormous care. I have described things only for which I found evidence and I have not accused anyone, living or dead, of anything. I have merely told a story. I haven't defamed the Ball family, I haven't written an opinion column about slavery. The book is a piece of historical narrative and journalism, it's not an editorial.
It seems so obvious that the myths of plantation life -- no cruelty, no sexual intermingling -- were just that, myths. Did you really believe that your own family had been such exemplary slaveholders?
Well, if you talk to families such as mine around the South and around America whose ancestors were slaveowners, you generally will hear that: "It wasn't us who mistreated people. It wasn't us, it wasn't our men who slept with black women, it was other people, next door."
This is the normal, this is the understandable explanation of each family for its own behavior. It's understandable because it's very difficult for one to accept that one's ancestors were God-fearing good citizens, good parents, but also capable of cruelty and sexual exploitation and violence and the sale of children. Simultaneously, sometimes on the same day. I wasn't surprised to find these things happening on my family's plantation, but it wasn't easy.
As that distant relative by marriage said: "Families seldom admit wrongdoing."
It's among all families. It's among Ellis Island [families], it's among all kinds of families. I don't want to single out Ellis Island families, it's among black families, by the way. It's characteristic.
Some reviewers have compared you to Quentin Compson in William Faulkner's "Absalom, Absalom." His refrain about the South is: "I don't hate it." Do you hate the South?
In fact, I love the South. I intend to live in Charleston. I've fallen in love with the South a second time. I've fallen in love with the South again and I'm moving back.
It's important that we don't scapegoat the South any longer. All of America carries the legacy of slavery. The Northern cities are as segregated, if not more so, than the Southern cities. Northern whites, whites in the West, have as much distance to travel in acknowledging the legacy of slavery on their lives as Southern whites.
By the same token, Southerners, particularly Southern whites, have to release some of their defensiveness about their region. And they have to try harder to learn more about the rest of America, and stop making fun of the rest of America. Southerners also have to become more worldly and less parochial.
Did you ever want to stop? Of course you had a contract, and a legal responsibility to finish the book or return your advance, but did you ever think you wanted to abandon the project?
There were times, yes. When I learned about some of the Ball family, such as Ann Simons Ball, known as Captain Nancy, and I learned about her personal cruelty toward people. She whipped her laundress because she hadn't cleaned the bath cloths properly. And when I learned in detail about Sullivan Island, my childhood home [and the place where slaves were quarantined when they first arrived in South Carolina].
There were many times when I thought I should just stop. But each time, I remembered that there were tens of thousands of people whose lives are connected to this story and their needs outweighed any personal inadequacy of mine and I had to persevere.
You stress the difference between being responsible for your ancestors and being accountable. Could you explain this?
I could not have controlled the deeds of my ancestors and therefore I'm not responsible for what they did. It's a matter of whether one is culpable, like a criminal who is culpable for a crime -- or accountable, which is, for example, as a government is accountable for treaties it undertakes.
I freely admit that the legacy of the plantation has given me great benefits, because the plantations created a caste society in which we live still today. So with that reality in mind, I feel that I am accountable for what happened on the Ball plantations. I am called on to explain it, to speak honestly about it, not to run from it, not to dress it up, to make a record of it that might be useful for black Americans especially, but also for whites.
You see, I didn't inherit any money from the slave past, there's no dirty money left over, the wealth was destroyed a hundred years ago. The Balls own no land and we own no capital that was handed down, but we have a great deal of cultural capital, social capital, and what I'm trying to do is acknowledge the fact.
But if the book is successful, you will have, in a sense, made money from your family's slaveholding past.
That remains to be seen. History books are not usually commercial books.
Benefiting from slavery
You say that all white Americans have, in some sense, benefited from slavery. But the majority of this country's residents today don't have ancestors who were here in the mid-19th century.
It's natural that we want to wash our hands of the race crisis and point the finger of blame at someone else. It's also the case that all white people have taken advantage of the legacy of slavery, including the immigrant families who came here after the Civil War. They were tired, they were homeless, they were yearning to breathe free, and when they set foot in America, they entered a caste society in the upper caste. They were able to get housing, jobs and education before native-born blacks. And to this day, the advantages of the plantation extend to all whites, not just the descendants of slaveowners.
What I'm saying does not take away the true suffering that working class Irish or Sicilian peasants or Russian Jews experienced coming to America. Their suffering was real. But I'm trying to put it in context.
(The interview was over, but Ball wanted to address one issue that had been raised in other interviews.)
About this question of guilt, which comes up sometimes.
My feeling is that I'm proud of my family. We are an early American family, we fought in the Revolution, we fought in the Civil War, we kept it together for 200 years. That's an unusual achievement, but I recognize my family for who we are and who we have been. I'm not guilty. If I were guilty, I would be hiding behind a door, unwilling to speak about the past. But in fact, I'm talking honestly and publicly about the worst things and the best things that my family has done.
Pub Date: 3/07/98