If you go to Charleston these days, and especially if you’re there in the evening, along King St, and “out on the town,” it’s kind of easy to ask yourself: where are all the Black people? Charleston looks and feels like a super clean version of Pleasure Island, and while you’re out it’s easy to feel like things are a little off. Maybe it’s a product of living in a city with a much larger Black population or something along those lines, but there’s something about Charleston. I think it’s because you can tell it’s a city (like a lot of cities) that’s in the active role of telling lies about its past.
I didn’t know going into this book, that these ideas would get play. While this book is ostensibly a history of the Ball family, one of the largest slave-owning White plantation famies in South Carolina, it also ends up being a de facto history of Charleston. Edward Ball begins researching his family and traces as much as he can their specific history, the history of the enslaved peoples held on the plantation, and the the crossover between those two groups. He’s working with a lot of mythology in this book. The mythologies that his own family told themselves–that they were among the good families, that freed Black people were worse off than slaves (if this were true, there’d be a pretty clear reason why), and that Balls never had sex with their slaves. He’s also dealing with all the lies and myths from before and after the Civil War regarding slavery. Some of which wrapped up in the family history and some not. Then of course are the 20th century lies and myths — that Civil Rights fixed everything, that there’s no reason to look back, that all you’ll do is hurt people etc. Ball was met resistance from a few places for a few reasons. White family members who resisted him — which more tended to be men, and more whose names were wrapped up — gave a version of “you’ll just stir up ghosts” that kind of thing. Black resistance to his book seems more to be tied up with hesitance to get involve and the dangers of backlash. Regardless, he was also met with support.
The book then is a few different books wrapped up in one. It’s the history of the Ball family. It’s the history of Charleston, South Carolina, the South, and slavery in general. And it’s the ethnography and storytelling drawn from the conversations with various descendants of Ball family and former slaves. The balance of these stories skews heavily toward the Ball family. A lot of reviewers have suggested that this weakens the overall book, and I am less sure about that. There might be a more important set of stories to tell regarding the various people Ball interviews throughout the book, but I also think that Ball is in a unique position to tell a more accurate version of “official” history through the debunking of his family’s history, and to tell that history with a little more confrontation than they seem to be willing to tell it themselves, or was told through family lore. I do think there could have been a second volume or longer story regarding the ethnography parts of this book, but given the moment we’re in right now, where true stories have finally been told for about 30 years, and there’s a gigantic backlash, all books that attempt to correct the record are welcome. I also think the issue comes from seeing this book as singular, and not part of a collection of books that address the historical record. To that end, I think this book is valuable in spite of whatever flaws it has (and it does have flaws, but I think those are reasonable to call out and indicate). I also think that it’s important to place this book in its context, 1998.