SLAVES IN THE FAMILY
By Edward Ball
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
504 pp., $30
A well-spoken white man drives the wooded back roads beyond Charleston, S.C., searching for a village once built by freed slaves, the name of which has long since disappeared. His inquiries lead him to a black woman in her 80s, said to be the keeper of local lore. She recognizes his name immediately. "Mr. Ball!" she almost shouts in greeting. It's been a long time since she's heard that name.
And an acquaintance begins - he the great-grandson of a slave owner; she the granddaughter of a Ball slave.
One hundred and thirty years after slavery's abolition, its legacy remains one of America's thorniest issues. For whites, it established a heritage of privilege now largely taken for granted; for blacks, an overwhelming sense of disenfranchisement.
Civil rights redressed much of the outward inequity. But the heart of the matter - the lingering social and emotional divide that no law can hope to bridge - awaits more subtle answers.
As a scion of a Charleston dynasty that greatly prospered from the trade in human chattel, Edward Ball faces the legacy of slavery head on. "Slaves in the Family" is the moving and disarmingly frank story of his search for the descendants of his family's 4,000 enslaved workers. It acts as both an acknowledgment of his family's past and an accounting of sorts.
Brought up hearing tales of the slave days, Ball writes, he was troubled that the story was divided in two: "On one side stood the ancestors, vivid, serene, proud; on the other their slaves, anonymous, taboo, half human."
An invitation to a family reunion in Charleston, where the older generation hoped to induct younger members into the anachronisms of Ball family lore, sparked his curiosity. And so began the search for the progeny of these "anonymous" slaves.
The idea, however, alarmed some older Balls who tried to discourage him, fearful as they were of retribution and comfortable with stories of kindly slave masters.
The issue of human property has had many justifiers over the centuries. But it was the English philosopher John Locke, who offered perhaps the most penetrating definition of the practice. To absolutely control another human being, he wrote, is to be in a permanent state of war.
The Balls waged this "war" to great financial gain for 167 years in Charleston - the Jerusalem of slave culture, "its capital and center of faith." Over that time the outward violence of the master/slave relationship diminished, paternalism crept in and, in later years, even the label "slave" was dropped for the less jarring "servant." But it was still captive labor.
Ball is no apologist for his family. He states bluntly that greed was the driving force of slavery. But he doesn't demonize his ancestors, either. The book is an unsentimental yet human history of the Ball family and their slave laborers from Elias "Red Cap" Ball's arrival in the New World in 1698 to the present day.
As a former columnist for the Village Voice, Ball knows how to tell a story and deftly segues between past events and present encounters.
He is also acutely aware of the sensitivities involved, and disarms much potential hostility to his quest from both blacks and whites through sincerity and honesty.
Recognizing that he "would have to earn the privilege of their company,'' he gradually befriends several black families of descendants, some of whom are relatives from liaisons his male forebears had with female slaves.
Ball ancestors were meticulous record keepers, preserving the ledgers of slaves bought and sold from the first day. Ball spent three years following an otherwise meagre paper trail, criss-crossing the country to meet descendants of Angola Amy, Bright Ma, Scipio, and many others. In Sierra Leone, he sought out descendants of African slave traders and walked the ruins of the Bunce Island slave factories.
Back in Charleston, he discovered curious holdovers of the slave period in institutions such as the Society for the Preservation of Spirituals. Here blue-blood whites, all descendants of slave-owning families, dress up in antebellum attire and sing Negro spirituals in an imitation of Gullah, the black dialect of the plantation.
But his "reunion" with black relatives offers the most poignant passages in the book, reinforcing the great irony of "Slaves in the Family" that it should take the white descendant of slave owners to build bridges with a diverse community of blacks.
Emily Frayer, whose great-grandmother was enslaved on a Ball plantation, responded to an ad the author placed in a Charleston paper. Advanced in years, she wished to see, one last time, the slave cabin where she was born.
On a crisp February morning, they set out for Hyde Park Plantation. As they slowly walk over the brow of the hill, skirting the main house, and carry on down to a small sagging cabin, Ball offers Mrs. Frayer an apology for what his family did to her family, conscious all the while of the inadequacy of such a gesture.
"Oh, man," she says. "You been on God's mantelpiece that time. That's out of your jurisdiction altogether."
Then she adds, "But you come in due time.... There's a lot to be done."
* Susan Llewelyn Leach is a Monitor staff editor.