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Ed Ball, author of "Slaves in the Family"
'Slaves in the Family'

A warrior in scholar's clothing

Web posted on: Thursday, January 28, 1999 3:55:32 PM

  • What were their names?
  • Doing battle with words, logic
  • 'We all have racial identity'
  • Steps toward healing

    Special for CNN Interactive
    By Jayne L. Bowman

    ATLANTA (CNN) -- A man in a ball cap jumps up in the middle of a Borders bookstore, saying, "You're committing cultural genocide against the South. Slavery's been around for centuries -- it's a worldwide phenomenon -- why is the South left holding the bag? In fact, I would argue that compared to the holocaust that's going on today in Africa, being a slave in America is like being on a vacation."

    Predictably, the crowd of more than 50 erupts. "Who's your travel agent?!" one man yells out.

    Calmly, the well-dressed, soft-spoken man standing before them nods and takes notes. He is Edward Ball, author of "Slaves in the Family", which chronicles the history of slaves on his ancestors' plantation.

    The group quietens and Ball responds: "I think it's important that we hear all points of view. My book has been received with friendship by the mainstream and occasionally been attacked by the extreme."

    "Near the end of my book, I describe going to West Africa to talk to slave traders and invite West Africans to reckon with their part in the legacy of slavery. Slavery in West Africa, and in Rome and in the Mediterranean was something different than slavery in America," he said. "There was personal slavery and there were body servants. But there was a uniqueness to the American case of slavery. 10 million people, a conservative estimate, were brought to America ... hundreds of people were set up in work camps, and hereditary-forced labor was put in place. That's a very different thing than the personal slavery that existed elsewhere. American slavery was something very unique ... and we have to try to describe what exactly went on here."

    That's what Ball's book does -- precisely and with staggering historical detail. After three years of intensive research into the Ball family papers, archives of Southern history and countless interviews of plantation descendants, Ball presents to the world something heretofore nonexistent: an account of the lives of the slaves who built his family's fortune.

    Begin reading "Slaves in the Family"

    What were their names?

    Growing up as a privileged young Southern boy, he said his family would tell story after story of Edward's ancestors and their plantation life. Yet something was missing. "The Balls lived side-by-side with black families for six generations ... but I never knew much about the slaves, even though on the plantations black people far outnumbered the white. What were their names? How did they live? Who were their loved ones?"

    Questions like these led Ball to move from New York City, where he had been enjoying success as a journalist, to a "moldering" old house in Charleston, South Carolina. There he conducted intensive research, poring over musty old records kept in a historical society building, interviewing Balls, and Ball slave descendants alike. This research led to the book, which led to this bookstore, this night and this heated discussion of racial parity and "cultural genocide."

    Ball once again addresses his bookstore accuser: "Cultural genocide against the South ... I'm not sure what that's intended to mean. The South includes black people as well as white people. In fact, the state that I come from, South Carolina, was a majority black state for 200 years. It was only in the mid-1920s that the 'white minority' became the 'white majority'. So when you describe cultural genocide against the South, it sounds to me like an incoherent formulation."

    Doing battle with logic, words

    Ball, though he balks at the term, appears a warrior in scholar's clothing. Information, history and calm logic are his weapons. Against extremists who defend the institution of slavery, and liberals who want to bury its memory in the interest of keeping the racial currents peaceful, Ball offers a good, hard, clinical look at slavery's legacy. Using the particulars of his family's plantation life he sheds light on American plantation life in general. And he explores the reverberations that echo still in today's race relations.

    In a later interview it sounds as if he not only is unsurprised by the passion his book generates but that he expects it. The negative reaction "happens from time to time," he says. "The topic of slavery is like an electric fence. Touch it and people will react."

    Ball says that there are two major groups opposing his book. "Conservatives who would rather not reckon with the notion of slavery, and progressives, mainly black progressives, who would not have ... a descendant of slave owners discuss it."

    In the face of all this passionate criticism, how does Ball keep composed? "I experience anger from black Americans and resentment from whites and the only thing I can do is speak as honestly as I can in an effort to release some of the poisons."

    Part Two: Book embraced by the public, critics

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