Slaves in the Family

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

In an expert demonstration of how to combine the use of documentary history and contemporary interviewing, Edward Ball utilizes in Slaves in the Family his investigative training as a journalist and the archival research skills of his Ivy League education to embark on what can only be described as an extraordinary, and exhaustive, exploration into his family’s past—and into the lives of those persons his family once held as slaves. He reaches, in an intensely familiar way, across generations and across races. In doing so, he faces, and in good measure releases, his own family demons, implicitly appealing to the broader conscience of other whites in the process.

Edward Ball may not have had an inkling of what a tremendous pandora’s box he was opening when he decided to look into the details behind an old family manuscript he had inherited from his father. Ball’s father, an Episcopal minister named the Reverend Theodore Porter Ball, had grown up in Charleston, South Carolina, one of many generations of Balls whose legacy in the area stretched back to the seventeenth century. He had in his possession an obscure family memoir, penned by a distant cousin and printed in 1909. Before he died, he passed it on to his young son Edward, who at the time had barely entered adolescence. “One day you’ll want to know about all this,” the elder Ball said. Those words proved both an apt prophecy and an egregious understatement. Slaves in the Family is written as if by one whose wanting to know had reached the level of a spiritual calling.

In the book, the research process is laid bare. Edward Ball tells the reader what he read, who he encountered, what places he went to visit, who he interviewed, what they said. It is part oral history, part group biography, part autobiography, and part social history of slavery and of the rice-growing plantations of South Carolina. By making the research and interview process overt, Ball styles himself the major protagonist in a kind of journey. He reclaims history lost, denied, or ignored. He also performs a kind of personal, and political, psychoanalysis—of himself, his family, and by extension, the whole period of Southern history during which white people held black people as slaves.

He begins his story with the outlines of his family history as it had always been represented to him within the white side of his family. Then he goes deeper. A professional journalist, he checks the facts, and he reports, in chapters that are virtual feature stories, what he discovered. Delving into his family’s checkered history became a process by which basic tenets of old family lore were shaken at their roots and replaced with a much more complicated—and inclusive—set of truths. His gentle but dogged approach raises hard questions about the use and abuse of power, and the true meanings of brotherhood and family. What he adds to the story are the kinds of things that blacks had known all along, but whites denied. In this way, Slaves in the Family is an initiation, for Ball and for other whites, into a fuller story of slavery and into a worldview and consciousness of the past held by blacks. It is a purging and an attempt at fuller honesty, in which Ball seeks, as he explains, not so much responsibility for the sins of the past but accountability.

It is also a book about bridging differences and making an attempt at healing. Ball, photocopies of documents in hand, approaches some of the present-day descendants of Africans who generations ago were purchased and owned by his white ancestors. They talk and piece together what they know from oral tradition, memory, or their own research into a broader detail of their own ancestral heritage. By matching what Ball discovered from archives with what descendants knew from family lore and recollection, they were able, together, to create a fuller picture of who had come before, who they had been, and where they had originated. He, in turn, reported who they had become, and what they had to say about it. In this way, Slaves in the Family is an act of reparation.

The broad historical facts are these. Between 1698 (when Edward Ball’s ancestor, Elias “Red Cap” Ball, arrived in the Carolina colony from England to take over ownership of a small farm, and of the slaves that worked it) and February, 1865 (when the Ball family plantations were occupied by victorious Yankee troops), almost four thousand black people were purchased by the Balls or born into slavery on their property. Slave labor, capital investment, and the ownership of vast fields of slave-tended rice made the Balls very wealthy (a wealth lost in the last decades of the 1800’s with the defeat of the Confederacy, emancipation, and the replacement of rice by cotton as the major...

(The entire section is 1960 words.)