Slaves in his Family

Updated October 26, 2021 | Ben Snowden
Black History Month
Photograph by Sigrid Estrada

In Slaves in the Family, journalist Edward Ball explores the shared history of his South Carolina plantation family, and the people they enslaved. His work was recognized with the 1998 National Book Award for non-fiction. Information Please has been privileged to interview him about race, restitution, and the mixed blessing of his heritage.

There's a rather un-politically correct quote in the book about Charlestonians being like the Chinese — in that "they eat rice and worship their ancestors." This is interesting, because a lot of the white Southerners I know are fascinated with genealogy — it's very important to them. Is that your impression? From what you can tell, do you think that black Southerners share this quality?

I think they share it differently because there is much more a consistent oral tradition among black folks in the South than there is even among white folks. White folks are much more interested in the papers and in the land deeds and in the photographs and the paintings that survived, whereas black folks will talk about people who are long dead, of whom no records exists because they were slaves. But their stories live on as life stories that are told by their descendants.

Do you think their attitudes towards their ancestors are similar to those among white Southerners?

Probably not. Certainly in my family, the attitude towards the ancestors is one of hagiography — veneration of the saints. Among black folks that I've met and spent enough time with to say that I know, it's less exalted. It seems to be more concerned with who people really were and the qualities that they carried.

Do you think it's less revisionist?

Well, among black folks it's probably also revisionist because people like to tell the good stories about their forebears just as much as white people do... But among white folks it's all mixed up with the sense of having something stolen from them.

The families who exalt their ancestors the most are the ones who had been land owners and slave owners before the Civil War and who experienced the Civil War as victims. This has an effect on what their descendants think about the whole business of family history. So the people who exalt their slave-owning forebears, for example, have an emotion mixed up with a slight kind of resentment and longing and wish that something else had occurred.

Do you not sense that same, or an analogous, sense of victimization among black people that you've talked to?

Black folks do report on the trials and tribulations of their forebears. In fact, that's probably one of the main narratives that you hear in black family history: people who survived and people who, against all odds, persevered. And sometimes it's mixed in with resentment against whites and sometimes it's not.

Is it generally a story that focuses on survival rather than victimization?

I think that's fair to say.

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