A Shared History

Updated August 5, 2020 | Infoplease Staff
Black History Month
Slaves in the Family

This ceremony of supplication ends Edward Ball's Slaves in the Family, winner of the 1998 National Book Award for non-fiction. The Sierra Leoneans are representatives of Chief Alikali Modu III, scion of a ruling local family that rose to power through participation in the slave trade. The American is Ball himself, descendant of a South Carolina plantation family who bought captured Africans on the other side of the Atlantic, in Charleston.

The book, his first, draws on numerous interviews and thousands of archival documents to trace the history of his family from its arrival in South Carolina in 1698 until the present day. In a radical departure from other works of genealogy, Slaves in the Family also tells the story of the people upon whose backs the Balls rode to fortune: the slaves they owned. Rather than rendering two separate narratives, though, Ball emphasizes the degree to which this is a shared history. Indeed, the work's title suggests the extent of their confluence: Ball reveals substantial evidence that he and the descendants of the people his family enslaved are bound by ties of blood, as well as history.

As he says in chapter one: "The progeny of slaves and the progeny of slave owners are forever linked. We have been in each other's lives. We have been in each other's dreams. We have been in each other's beds."

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