'Slaves in the Family': There is no absolution


"Slaves in the Family," by Edward Ball. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. New York. 489 pages. Illustrated. $30.

Well before its publication, this remarkable book has already created sensation, and justifiably so. Not since William Faulkner wrote his masterpiece "Absalom, Absalom!" in 1936 has any writer rendered a more hauntingly poignant exploration of the dark roots and bitter fruits of slavery in America.

In 1698 a young Englishman named Elias "Red Cap" Ball arrived in South Carolina to claim a modest land inheritance, bringing with him 25 African slaves to do the grunt work of growing rice. Over the next six generations, Red Cap's descendants proliferated in number and wealth, while the slaves proliferated only in number. By the time of the Civil War, some 4,000 slaves had drudged like oxen on the vast Ball plantations. When the war ended, the Balls were bereft, and the slaves cast across the land. Today their progeny may number as many as 100,000.

Laboring under this generational "crime," Ball reconstructed a history all but erased by time and myth. His rationale was simple: "It would be a mistake to say that I felt guilt for the past. A person cannot be culpable for the acts of others, long dead. . . . The plantation heritage was not 'ours,' like a piece of property, and not 'theirs,' belonging to black families, but a shared history. We have been in each other's lives. We have been in each other's dreams. We have been in each other's bed. . . . I thought we should meet, share our recollections, feelings, and dreams, and make the story whole."

The author quickly learned that family tales of kindly and benign slave-owners were self-protective mythology, pure and simple. Rather, he found among his ancestors an ample distribution of benevolent "maussas," cruel tyrants, and even one conscience-stricken family member who fled to New York because she could no longer bear the moral burden of the oppressor.

Nor did it come as any surprise when Ball began to discover irrefutable evidence that the very blood of the slaves and slave-owners over the centuries inevitably began to mingle.

The improbable journeyman-author drew upon a rich vein of written lore of his ancestors, but amazingly, he found an equally bountiful lode in the carefully kept oral tradition of the slaves. Indeed, he was able to trace one line of slaves all the way back to one "Angola Amy," a slave-girl brought to America in the early 1700s by old "Red Cap" Ball.

As the author climbed to the outer limbs of family trees, he inevitably found himself confronting the full range of human emotions among the people whose ancestors were owned by his ancestors and yet who were, in many cases, distant blood-cousins. He found generosity, suspicion, and at times outright rancor, but he persevered.

An epilogue produces a suspenseful surprise. Like a driven man, Ball goes to Africa to seek the descendants of the Africans who sold their fellow tribesmen into abject bondage. Remarkably, he found a fair number, and there were tense meetings as he confronted contemporary African nobility whose very corpulence amid stark want demonstrated that they, too, enjoyed the fruits of the evil trade to this day.

In the end there is an awkwardly contrived ritual in which the guilty parties, black and white alike, carry out a curious symbolic act of contrition on a remote creek-bank in Africa where the chained captives were put into boats for their journey to a new world and a new history. Would that this act of absolution truly ended the sorrowful tale.

Ray Jenkins grew up in Georgia and has a shared experience to Edward Ball's in that his family were slaveholders in the antebellum South. He retired in 1992 as editorial page editor of The Evening Sun after covering the civil rights movement for several newspapers.

Pub Date: 3/22/98

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