Interview: Edward Ball on Slaves in the Family
A Mixed Blessing
You've obviously uncovered some ugly chapters in your family history. How do you feel about how you ancestry weighs on you? I'm sure that there are some things you'd like to distance yourself from in general—
Well, what I've tried to do is to work through the bad parts of my family legacy and that is not typical in these parts, in this section of the country. White folks prefer to lock away the harsh realities of slave owning and talk about, for example, their forebears who were field infantry in the Civil War. And what I've done is to try to take the thing by the horns and reckon with it. And because I've done that, I have to say, I feel better than I once felt.
About your ancestry?
Yes. I don't feel as secretive about it, I don't feel as neurotic about it, I don't feel as defensive about it, and I feel as though I've made something of it that is different. By reaching out to black families whose ancestors were enslaved by my family, I've reinterpreted this family legacy in a way that makes sense to me and makes sense to present-day politics and reality.
Are there parts that you feel proud of?
Sure. The Ball family came from England and settled in South Carolina and we've stayed here for three hundred years. We have an unbroken continuity in family identity and remembrance and we know a hell of a lot about ourselves. Our family fought in the Revolution and fought in the Civil War and it's a rare experience in American life to have such a legacy — all of it documented by us... and that is something to be proud of.
On the other hand, our family was guilty of acts of sexual violence, acts of brutality, of buying and selling children. We were in disavowal about the reprehensible nature of the business that we were in. We were ignorant and deaf to the criticisms that were raised from a very early date against slavery. So we have a lot to account for.