After the death of his mother, Edward Ball traveled into his family’s past both figuratively and geographically, seeking to unearth racist roots. He found them in places, like a sprawling plantation outside New Orleans, and in people, like his great-great-grandfather Polycarp Constant Lecorgne.
The result is a book designed to discomfort its reader. It begins in the prologue, where Ball recounts conversations with family elders who again and again remember Lecorgne as “our Klansman”. The coziness and repetition of the phrase leads the reader to wonder just how near Ball feels to his forebear. And that, as becomes clear later, is exactly what Ball wants.
Ball is not a new traveler among his ancestors. In 1998 he wrote Slaves in the Family, in which he explored his father’s side of the family. Over a century and a half in South Carolina the Balls had owned thousands of human beings, and the author examined that in typical memoir style. More interestingly, he tracked down the descendants of those slaves, and gave voice to their stories.
So it’s disorienting, in Life of a Klansman, when Ball slips in and out of a stream of consciousness that seems to imagine the thoughts of his racist ancestors in a sympathetic way. For instance we meet Klansman Lecorgne as police charge him and others with occupying a New Orleans police precinct building.
Ball employs his skill as a historian to identify specific victims of events his ancestors joined or instigated
Ball writes: “Constant stands accused. He is charged with treason. If he hangs for it, I will not have the pleasure of telling his story. He is a fighter for whiteness. Which he knows, and we also know, is not treason at all.”
Or later, as Ball describes the way white New Orleanians die of yellow fever at a high rate: “The Blacks live and live, they brush off the fevers. There is no justice in it. One day, the Blacks will be held to account.”
All of this could seem, to the impatient reader, like an effort to empathize with the racist mind. In August, Tulane University planned to host a public talk with Ball. But the discussion was postponed after students at the college – which features prominently in the book – protested. The book is “antithetical to the anti-racist work”, they wrote, adding that Tulane should “prioritize uplifting Black voices”.
Ball’s book does do that – more on that in a moment – but only after setting the reader squarely in a Klansman’s mindset. Why?
The first news story I ever wrote was in Lafayette, Louisiana, in the heart of Acadiana, an area Bell describes as birthing Ku Klux Klan movements one after the other in the late 19th century. My story, a century later, centered on a local Klan leader. I described him and his followers as what the Klan seemed to be then: a small, defeated group of uneducated, powerless men who had fallen together because no one else would have them. Their mindset was obscure, dribbling with impotence. Society could view them as though through the wrong end of a telescope: they were tiny, and far away.
Ball, though, refuses to allow his readers that distance. He writes of Lecorgne as despicable but fully human, forcing the reader to view the world through the long-dead man’s little round-framed spectacles. All of which makes Ball’s eventual point so much more powerful:
It is not a distortion to say that Constant’s rampage 150 years ago helps, in some impossible-to-measure way, to clear space for the authority and comfort of whites living now – not just for me and for his 50 or 60 descendants, but for whites in general. I feel shame about it. That is not a distortion, either. I am an heir to Constant’s acts of terror. I do not deny it, and the bitter truth makes me sick at the stomach.
Whites are my people, my tribe. They were Constant’s people, his tribe. In that way he belongs to us, and to hundreds of millions. I know the honest way to regard race violence is this: American history is full of it. It is pandemic. The United States was founded upon racial violence. It is within the core of our national identity.
Ball sounds that note of accountability long and loud, in the middle chapters of the book, until the reader can only ask: What now?
That’s when Ball reprises his theme from Slaves in the Family, employing his skill as a historian to identify specific victims of events his ancestors joined or instigated, then tracking down their descendants around the modern US.
He takes time to pursue interesting digressions – jazz musicians, the painter Edgar Degas – but the second half of the book focuses largely on the consequences of his ancestors’ actions, and the people affected. These are not cursory mentions: Ball creates detailed and loving portraits of people such as Janel Santiago Marsalis, who is initially wary of Ball in New Orleans. She’s a Creole artist who paints her own ancestors. Some of her family died at the hands of Lecorgne’s fellow Klansmen. Through her art and in the book she, as Tulane’s students might hope, lifts Black voices mightily.
Life of a Klansman culminates with a meditation on culpability versus accountability, overt evil and unconscious acceptance.
“People may make their own lives, but we do under conditions we do not choose, with terms dictated from the past,” Ball writes. “We can never make out our links to the felonies of history.”