"A Work in Progress"

Updated October 26, 2021 | Infoplease Staff
Black History Month

What do you feel your obligation is, to the people that you don't know, that you haven't a history with— the descendants of black slaves. What do you owe them?

Here's the language that I would use: I don't feel responsible for what our family did, because I could not have influenced what my ancestors chose to do. I do feel accountable for it, because I've benefited from it in material ways, and I feel obliged to reckon with it and talk about it honestly.

What, beyond giving a history of just what happened, does being "accountable" consist of? Can a satisfactory explanation can be given for slavery?

What I've tried to do is to tell an honest story that includes white people and black people in it and tries to create a context for a partial reconciliation between white folks and black folks. And that has been a labor that has gone on for three and a half, four years. I've carved out this part of my life and devoted myself to this project. That is, in one way, a form of restitution.

Now in another way, I am going to take another step, which is that some other members of the Ball family and I are going to create a foundation that will be funded initially from a part of the profits I make from this book. I'm setting aside 25% of the earnings that I make from sales of copies of the book to give to this as yet unnamed entity whose goal is to design restitution projects, in collaboration with black families who have been affected by our family. We're going to bring together some of the descendants of Ball slaves, and with their collaboration and judgment, try to figure out what kind of programs we can fund within the resources we have available that will, in a way, answer for this legacy that we carry together.

Have you gotten ideas or suggestions already for what kinds of programs this would be?

It's a work in progress, and we haven't even had our first meeting. So it will have to wait until that happens, because the point of the exercise is to try to bring black people and white people together in creating some sort of joint response so that it's not a form of one family giving... doing for other people or charity from one race to another, but it's some sort of joint reckoning — I think that's the crux of it. And we haven't even had our first meeting. But the way we're framing it is as a restitution project.

Do you think that this sort of obligation to make restitution extends beyond the people to whom you're directly connected — the descendants of the people your ancestors enslaved. Do you think that extends beyond those people to other black Americans?

Yeah, it does. In fact, the beneficiaries... Whatever we do will not be writing checks to individual black people, but the beneficiaries of whatever programs we design will not be restricted to descendants of Ball slaves. It would probably be restricted to black Americans, but it would not be restricted to this particular group of people.

Do you think that other white Americans, even those whose ancestors did not participate directly in the institution of slavery, have similar obligations?

Well, I don't know yet, because this is all fresh. As far as I'm aware, there has been no private attempt at restitution for slavery. So this is all very new, and we're still exploring what it means. And, in reality, I'm not sure that's for me to say. I'm not sure that I'm the person who can make that judgment. I hope that whatever we do causes others who have been fortunate in this society to measure the nature of their fortune against the racial history of this country, and perhaps they can draw their own conclusions.

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