I’d never heard of this until vel veeter’s review last year, but then immediately put it on my TBR as it sounded really interesting. And it was interesting! For the most part. Large parts were a slog. It also didn’t really do what I wanted it to do, except in the preface, which was written in 2014 and not included in the original publication.
Edward Ball descends from the Ball family, wealthy plantation owners and people responsible for enslaving thousands of Black people over two hundred and fifty years. He discovered that his family had kept all their papers, a wealth of historical information, including information on the enslaved people the Balls owned. He decided to find out what he could, and in the process confront how his family actually treated the people they owned.
Almost no one in his family was happy about him digging through their past like this; none of them wanted their bubbles popped. Especially as the oral history of slavery in the Ball family was one where they had told themselves constantly and over generations that they weren’t like other slaveowners. They took care of the people they owned, they never beat them, never raped them, etc. So if this was true, why was his family so mad he was looking?
Interestingly, Ball does find evidence, both historical and through the oral histories of Black families whose ancestors were Ball slaves, that there was some truth to this family legacy. The Balls, historically, do seem to have been “better masters” than other slaveowners, but to say that they never mistreated their slaves is a) patently absurd, because even if true, owning slaves pretty much tops all those other crimes, and b) of course, there was still evidence that Ball slaves were beaten, imprisoned, raped, etc. Ball slaves were still instrumental in a couple of slave revolts. Ball finds lots of evidence that members of the Ball family had children with their slaves, whether due to rape, a single sexual encounter, or because that Ball family member was in a relationship (as it were) with the slave. (He finds evidence that the people in this latter category were often freed in their master’s wills, left money, or property.)
Also interesting were the conversations Ball had with some of his family members, many of whom display staggeringly paternalistic racism, and a general cluelessness I found astounding (willful ignorance might be a better term).
Where this book lost me was the endless family history of the Balls, especially when unconnected to his larger points, or to larger historical events. I just did not care. I think his perspective might have failed him a little here, because of course he finds the minutia of his own family history interesting. He also has an irritating writing tic, where he has to describe the way people look, and it gets pretty cringey at times, esepcialy when he’s describing Black people. The preface really was one of the highlights of the book, and can’t imagine the book without it. That’s where you get most of the analysis, and more modern thoughts about race and generational trauma. I wanted more of that analysis throughout the book.
Overall, still worth checking out, bearing in mind that it’s over twenty years old, and that you’ll have to wade through 1,000 Elias Balls, or whatever, to get to the interesting stuff.