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Part 2: A Warrior In Scholar's Clothing
Ball speaks at the 1998 National Book Awards
Compared to the positive reaction to Ball's book, the negative voices are minor. It has been critically acclaimed, embraced by the public and was honored with the 1998 National Book Award for nonfiction. Asked about the awards and success of the book, Ball is characteristically humble: "It's a happy accident. When you're writing a book you don't think about prizes, you worry that you're not going to finish. It took me over three years to complete this, so you hope, as a writer, that people might acknowledge the effort."
There's the sense that, more important to Ball than the awards or praise is the dialogue his book has generated. Since "Slaves in the Family" brought the subject of slavery up, "people now feel they have permission to speak about it and about their own experiences. They've often felt, up until now, that it wasn't appropriate. Its a cathartic reaction that I don't know if I'm to be given credit for. This is a story that is much, much bigger than I am."
Ball stresses that it's not only African Americans who should feel they have permission to discuss their blackness. "We all have a racial identity: blacks, whites,Jews, Latinos, Asians. Its the deepest part of our realities. It's not just black people who feel their blackness, white people should feel that they can talk about their whiteness. The problem has been that (the) last people who did so were Nazi Germans ... this hangs over anyone speaking of their whiteness."
"One of the reasons people write books is to get a response. One of the reasons I wrote the book is because I didn't like the racial status quo. I thought that, because of an accident of birth," (being born into a privileged family) I might be able to make some small alteration."
He admits to breaking unwritten rules of journalism and historical writing. "Most historians are wary of two things: injecting their personal opinions into things, and they are wary of oral history. But I put my personal identity into the book and I relied on black oral tradition. "
"Any honest person will tell you that the attempt to divorce one's persona from the story they tell is inevitably doomed to failure. A Jew writing about the Holocaust is likely to feel strongly about the subject, and the descendant of slaveowners is likely to feel strongly about the subject of slavery," he says.
"My role is to tell the story as plainly as I can and allow people to feel what we have in common. While we're all standing on this long shadow that was cast over us by the plantation, sometimes we are not aware that it's coming from so long ago."
What then does a racially equal future look like to Ball?
"There's not going to be some moment of enlightenment where we all pass from one place to another. What we have to do is to understand ourselves (as a nation) having a tragic story as well as a heroic one. We prefer to focus upon the traditions of democracy, and we prefer not to focus on the fact that it was started on the backs of forced labor and that blacks have only been free for half the time that they've been slaves. "
But he thinks the people of the United States are making progress. The proof? The intense reaction that extremist evoked from the rest of booksigning crowd. "Opinions like that gentleman's were once the norm. Now anyone who speaks up that way in public is treated as a social pariah."
Ball is also encouraged by the economic power of African Americans. "A few years ago the black middle class was one half the size it is today. It's a big step forward." Ball credits affirmative action with the expanding economic strength of minorities.
What else can white America do to encourage this growth and heal old wounds? Last year Ball appeared on the Oprah Winfrey show and offered an apology to Charlotte Dunne and Katie Roper, who were descendants of Ball family slaves. " I apologized to them for the damage that my family had done to theirs. I knew that words were not enough, that they were a band-aid on a deep wound but that, in asking forgiveness, we had taken at least a step towards healing. I didn't apologize to every black American I've met; I think that would be hollow. The apology wasn't a pro forma or lightly taken step. And I did it on national TV because I thought that that the message might be best if it were heard by a whole lot of people. It might have greater resonance if many people heard about it. "
Ball's taken other steps towards healing. With 25 percent of the profits from his book, he's establishing restitution projects. "The Ball slave relatives will be involved in this ... their participation, their advice, their time." Ball is in favor of a memorial to slavery, saying it's time to stop confusing the idea of acknowledging an important part of our history with the idea of honoring it.
"Obviously, the Holocaust museum has been a place of healing to Jews and Gentiles," Ball says. "That museum tells the worst Holocaust stories so that they are not forgotten."
In the same spirit, Ball believes the stories of slavery not only deserve telling, but they desperately need it.
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