Originally published by n.b. a web project of the New York Review of Books
Heartland of Slavery
Slaves in the Family
by Edward Ball
Review by Fred Murphy
Village Voice columnist Edward Ball is a descendant of one
of the great clans of slaveholding rice planters of tidewater South Carolina.
He grew up hearing stories laden with nostalgia and romance about the days
when the Balls controlled a dozen or more large plantations along the Cooper
River west of Charleston. What he eventually found troubling, however, was
that "no one among the Balls talked about how slavery had helped us."
While the family's material wealth dissipated soon after the Civil War,
the Balls' white progeny nonetheless "received a great fund of cultural
capital, including prestige, a chance at education, self-esteem, a sense
of place, mobility, even (in some cases) a flair for giving orders."
Slaves in the Family is the product of Edward Ball's quest to come to terms with this heritage and in so doing to contribute to wider American efforts to "work through the tragic parts" of the country's history. In part a family memoir, in part a social and political history of South Carolina, and in part a journal of Ball's own efforts to achieve self-understanding and atonement, the book is an impressive, well-written work that shifts fluidly among its disparate genres.
Central to the book is Ball's account of his effortsmostly successfulto connect with the families of former Ball slaves. The author recognizes from the outset that the plantation heritage was "a shared history" common to the descendants of slaveholders and slaves alike: "We have been in each other's lives. We have been in each other's dreams. We have been in each other's beds." He supplements his archival investigations into the family papers by interviewing African-Americans whose forebears he has traced to Ball plantations. He thus not only clarifies his own work by drawing on African-American oral traditions but also assists these families in recovering important facets of their own heritage.
For the descendants of P. Henry Martin, born a slave on the plantation of Edward Ball's own great-grandfather, he provides an ancestry going all the way back to "a girl named Priscilla, who came to Charleston in the year 1756, from the Sierra Leone River, in West Africa." Conversations with Emily Marie Frayer, a Charleston lady in her nineties whose grandmother had been a slave on Limerick plantation, yield hard truths to clarify Ball family lore about what "gentle masters" their forebears were: ' "You see," Mrs. Frayer explains, " 'they had a overseer, and this overseer, he do all the lickin.' "
While not trained as a professional historian, Edward Ball works like one, examining archival materials, conducting interviews, sifting evidence, establishing facts or plausibilities, discarding false leads, etc. Beyond its value as personal memoir, Slaves in the Family can stand also as a contribution to the historical literature on South Carolina, the heartland of early American slavery. Ball provides ground-up, first-hand accounts of the American Revolution and the Civil War from the standpoint of both slaves and slaveholders in the Carolina ricelands.
Edward Ball refrains from preaching in this work about the evils of slavery and its pernicious legacy. He simply tells his stories. But in the process he manages to convey a powerful sense of personal atonement and to provide an example of how all Americans might do the same by honestly examining and accounting for the crimes and cruelties of the nation's past.
Fred Murphy is a writer living in New York City. He has studied and taught in the Committee on Historical Studies at the New School for Social Research.