All in the family

For centuries, Edward Ball’s ancestors owned some 25 rice plantations near Charleston, S.C. And between 1698 and 1865, more than 4,000 black people were either purchased by the Balls or born into slavery on the family plantations. In Ball’s 1998 book Slaves in the Family, which won both the Southern Book Award for Nonfiction and the National Book Award, he documents his family’s history — including the present-day descendants of Ball slaves (between 75,000 and 100,000 African-Americans are estimated to be direct descendants of slaves owned by the Balls).

Slaves in the Family is a painstakingly — and painfully — meticulous document of the rise and eventual fall of one family, the early travails and later triumphs of a host of other families and, in a larger sense, the often dark, violent history of America. Ball, a former columnist for the Village Voice, moved back to the Charleston area from New York City in 1994, to undertake the arduous task of examining a legacy that was not often spoken of among the latter-day Balls. “There are five things we don’t talk about in the Ball family,” the author’s late father reportedly told his mother many years ago: “Religion, sex, death, money, and the Negroes.” Just before the senior Ball’s death, though, he presented his son, age 12, with a copy of an ancient family history, telling him, “One day you’ll want to know about all this.”

The book told Edward Ball a lot about his family, but nothing about the slaves who had toiled for them. After a long absence from the South, Ball returned for a family reunion in the early ’90s. The complex emotions sparked by that trip home drove Ball to uncover the other, uglier side of his family’s history.

While researching the book, Ball talked to more than 150 descendants of his family’s slaves — some of them distant relatives of his, because of sexual relations between Ball’s ancestors and their slaves. His passion for detail — the names and physical descriptions of scores of slaves (not to mention more brutal details of bodies scarred and mutilated at the hands of their masters), and even the kind of hair ribbons and teacups their descendants favor — goes a long way toward explaining the power of this brilliant work.

But while Slaves in the Family has garnered high honors in the literary world, it has also drawn attacks from both blacks and whites. In a recent telephone interview, Ball put it this way: “I’m trying to do what I can to answer for the legacy that my family left behind. It’s just one person’s attempt to answer for a considerable legacy of pain and exploitation.”

(What follows are excerpts from Marsha Barber’s interview with Ball. For the full interview, please visit our Web site at

MX: Near the beginning of the book, you talk about the conflicting emotions your family’s plantation history stirred in you when you first began your research — pride, but also shame. As you became more deeply immersed in researching the lives of slaves on those plantations, were you able to keep some sense of family pride and loyalty intact, or did the shame completely take over at times?

EB: Well, I never lost the sense of family pride, because it is an unusual American saga … and we are unusually lucky, in that we have the records that we have from the 250 years that the family was in the business of plantation agriculture. … The Ball family fought in the American Revolution, on both sides, and … in the Civil War, on one side. We know who we are. And, also, we stayed in one place. We didn’t leave. After 300 years, we’re still in the same place. All of that is something to be proud of. So I never lost the sense of family pride. Now there are some in my family who think that I lost it, because I’ve tried to complicate it, or make it more complicated than it had been previously.

MX: So I take it there are members of your family who are angry about the book.

EB: Well, if we’re talking about a year ago or 10 months ago, when the book was coming to press and was first out, yes. But now the temperature has cooled, because everyone has had the opportunity to read the book. There’s been a certain amount of positive publicity and a curiosity about the book. It’s attracted a couple of honors, and people see that their fears were not realized. There was a small group in the family who thought that this would bring shame and infamy to us … — that I was a traitor of sorts. And they didn’t know what would happen with the black folks …

MX: As I’m sure you didn’t. You must have been incredibly nervous when you approached that first Ball slave descendant.

EB: Exactly. I can understand [my family’s] fear. So when the book was coming to press, there were feelings of apprehension and fear among a large group, and anger among a small group. People were worried: Would black families single us out? Would we in some way have to take the blame for what our forebears did? Would we be subject to public or personal attacks of one kind or another?

MX: Well, those are understandable fears, and I know that you, yourself, have been subject to at least some verbal attacks, from both blacks and whites.

EB: The first person I approached was a man named Thomas Martin, who’s now dead. … And, sure, I thought the thing might explode in my face. I thought that he might reject my approach to him. I thought that we would find ourselves unable to communicate, if we even got into a room [together]. I was worried that this was a bad idea, but I thought that if it succeeded, then the rewards in terms of personal reconciliation between one family and another would be great. Mr. Martin turned out to be a very dignified, soft-spoken man — not a volatile person at all. And he was intensely curious about his history: He knew about his family’s life after emancipation; he knew nothing about his family in slavery. I knew about his family in slavery and nothing about his family after slavery. So we had something to share. That exchange characterized the encounters I had with all the black families.

MX: I was really struck by the general lack of bitterness, at least on the surface, that most of the Ball slave descendants you spoke with seemed to display. Were there more hostile reactions you didn’t include in the book?

EB: Yes, there were. There was a family in California that was wary about me, but nevertheless I worked with them for a year-and-a-half and visited them several times. We shared information, and each time, I had the feeling that something was a little amiss. They were having difficulty grappling with their ambivalence. They wanted to know about their ancestry, and they wanted to reconcile it [in] some way with me. But on the other hand, they would sometimes be overcome with anger. And in the end, just before the book was going to press, they withdrew their consent, so I had to take out a whole chapter of the book — literally weeks before it went to the printer. … And there were other, smaller-scale conflicts.

MX: Regarding the people who did take you into their homes and communities, did you get the sense that a lot of surface politeness was at play, or did you feel that most people’s acceptance of you and your project was genuine?

EB: It varied from family to family. Everybody has a different constellation of emotions about this legacy of slavery. … And within each family, there would be a variety of emotions. … I would be sitting in a room with 15 people, for instance, and there would be a current coming from one side of the room and a different current from the other side. [But] people were polite, because I tried to approach them with care and respect. I didn’t call them up and shove things in their faces, and I also did some homework — and I brought my homework to the table. So if I were to sit down with you and say that I happened to find out that your great-great-grandfather was sold away from his wife and moved to another plantation in 1850 — and [that] this is dreadful, dreadful knowledge, but I have to share it with you — … in general, they wanted to know, rather than not to know. And a lot of families seemed to see the research as a kind of gift to them.

MX: Are you still in touch with the families?

EB: Yes … more with some, and less with others.

MX: What about the slave descendants who are actually distant relatives of yours? Were any kind of lasting familial bonds formed during this process, do you think?

EB: Yes, I’m still in touch with those people. In fact, I see them more than I see the rest of the families. There are two different families, one in Philadelphia and one in Atlanta, and I correspond with them and visit them, and sure, we have an ongoing relationship.

MX: I wanted to ask you about the most powerful moments for you during the process of writing the book. For me, the most viscerally moving moments were when you said to Emily Frayer, “I’m sorry what my family did to your family,” and then when the two of you wept together as you stood with her family at the Hyde Park Plantation. Then, of course, the commemoration ceremony at Bunce Island (where Africans were first sold into slavery) — involving you and the descendants of early slave traders — was incredibly powerful. What moments were the most defining for you?

EB: There were a lot of moments. I had tons of unexpected and unwanted revelations during the process of writing this book. And it was, of course, very emotionally draining. After a time, I really [didn’t] want to learn any more, because it’s just too dreadful. But, every once in a while, there would be a moment that would stand out … for example, when I found that one of the Ball women, Ann Ball, personally whipped her house slaves … when I found that out (in a letter that she wrote to her husband), I couldn’t believe it. … It was very upsetting. And when I found out that when … John Ball … had a set of twins with his second wife … that he went out and bought twin African girls to serve those twins, I couldn’t believe it. I mean … this was a moment when he was celebrating the birth of his children. You know, it’s hard to get inside the minds of people who were living at that time. So what I tried to do with the book was tell the stories pretty much straight, without too much inflection.

MX: This might be just my own interpretation, but I got the sense that you were, understandably, trying hard at times to hold onto the notion that, as slaveholders go, the Balls were perhaps more humane than many. When all is said and done, where do you think the Balls fall — in that horrible to not-quite-as-horrible continuum?

EB: I don’t think they were kinder; I think they were no better or no worse than the others. They bought and sold children. They had sex with their women slaves. They beat people. They never once reflected on what they were doing, even during the abolitionist propaganda that started in the 1820s and continued for 40 years. Having said that, the Balls were large-scale slave owners, and within the family, within each generation, people were less or more kind than others.

MX: Exactly. It’s really easy to lump all slave owners together.

EB: That’s right. There were people who were nicer, and there were people who were callous, and in my book, I think you can see that difference. … If you ask any family such as mine in the American South, they will tell you two things: [That] their family members were gentle masters, and that the violence took place on neighboring plantations. And … that their forebears did not have sex with slaves. … It’s a way of protecting oneself from basic truths, and I understand it.

MX: You managed to describe the fall of the family after the Civil War with an odd sense of poignancy that nevertheless, to me, also conveyed a feeling of “they basically got what they deserved.” I felt the same way about the simple diary entry that Isaac Ball made while he was running from the Yankees during the war: “Begged for the first time for a meal.” I was honestly both somehow touched and, also — I hate to admit it — quietly pleased by that revelation. What were your feelings about that fall from grace?

EB: Well, I actually didn’t feel that this was justice, or feel any sense of pleasure about it. I felt that the Civil War, having uprooted the system of forced labor, caused disaster in all factions of society, and the Balls … we have to be honest about this: They experienced the Civil War as victims, however you think about it, and it’s sad to reflect on. Within the family … for generations, there was kept alive this sense that we were robbed, and [that] that lost cause was something that had to always be remembered. … [It’s] partly because the generation that lost the Civil War suffered so much, and they passed down their resentments to their children and their grandchildren. There’s that interesting moment at the very end of the Civil War, where the slaves are freed and they’re dancing and drinking and going off to the town for the first time, and the Balls are sort of huddling in the house. And you really get a sense of the world turned upside down.

MX: That was a surreal moment: Suddenly, the hegemony was reversed, in a bizarre way. … As far as the effects of that fall on your generation, I was really struck by the section where you were explaining that your own father earned an Episcopal priest’s modest salary, and that you went to Brown on a scholarship and loans. And then there was a simple-but-loaded sentence that really just hung there, for me: “There was no land, no inheritance, no slave money.” How do you think your own history — and your decision to write the book, to somehow rectify your family’s past — might have been different, if you had had slave money?

EB: I don’t know if anything would be substantially different. The social arrangements … have remained intact in many ways in South Carolina, and the descendants of the plantation families — myself and a couple of hundred other families — have all had automatic social standing. … There hasn’t necessarily been a consumer lifestyle attached to that status [and] I don’t think my life would have been substantially different if there had been slave money. The main difference is, I would have been able to wear nicer clothes when I was teenager. … We don’t have financial capital from the slave days, but we have enormous cultural capital, which is much more valuable than money itself, and this has tracked me into an Ivy League school and into journalism, and opened lots of other doors. I’m only being honest in saying that.

MX: Well, from the short times I’ve spent in Charleston, I was pretty amazed at the incredibly defined social strata there, and also, honestly, the blatant racism that I witnessed. Was that racism especially palpable to you growing up?

EB: Well … [first of all], I lived here only three years full-time when I was a boy, and the rest of the time just spent summers here. … Secondly, I’m reluctant to use the word “racism,” because I’m not sure I can really call anybody a racist. … I love the South, and I love my family, and all I’m trying to do is drag us into the future a little bit faster than we would go otherwise. … [My book is] just one person’s attempt to answer for a considerable legacy of pain and exploitation.

MX: Well, that’s quite a burden to carry. I know that you’re donating 25 percent of the royalties from Slaves in the Family to a fund that benefits restitution projects created jointly by whites and blacks. That’s one of the ways you’re answering in a really concrete way for that legacy.

EB: What I see is that … as a family, our public acknowledgment of the things that we did has brought out a flood of release … from black people and white people. I’ve traveled all over the country and given dozens and dozens of talks, and it’s plain as day that to stand up and say, “Listen, our family did wrong, and we regret it” — that has a healing effect that is very strong.

MX: I know. I think every Southern white — whether our ancestors were poor as dirt, like mine, or slave owners themselves, and whether we even acknowledge it on a conscious level — feels this sort of dark burden, this vague responsibility for some very wrong deeds committed long ago. And, honestly, reading your book, I did feel almost this personal sense of relief that someone was coming out and saying, “I’m sorry” to specific families, at least.

EB: Right. That’s been an unexpected consequence.

MX: Most of the anti-slavery material I’ve read fails to mention the fact that Africans actually did sell their own people into slavery. … You explore that fact in detail [at the end of your book] in your account of visting Sierra Leone and the Bunce Island site where so many slaves were sold. … Have you gotten any flack, particularly from African-Americans, who could view the inclusion of this as some sort of semi-absolution of the whites who bought the slaves?

EB: … The fact is, it’s uncomfortable for black Americans to see that, on one hand, white Americans have handled them so roughly and, on the other hand, other Africans in the distant past sold their forebears to the whites. I thought that, to be honest, I had to talk about their part in the slave trade, so I did. It’s funny. When I go around parts of the South — and even the North, sometimes — people say, “Well, if those Africans hadn’t sold their brothers, whites wouldn’t have bought ’em.” When I went to Sierra Leone, I heard from the descendants of slave traders, “Well, if those white folks hadn’t come over here, we wouldn’t have sold them anybody.” So there’s a lot of finger-pointing that goes on. [Laughs.]

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