Slaves In the Family

I’ve mentioned it previously, but having just finished reading it, I have to mention it again: Edward Ball’s Slaves in the Family. It’s history, memoir, oral history; a re-telling of American History through the events of one slave-owning family in South Carolina. I found more: a 30-minute radio documentary (Sept 28,2000 episode, scroll half way down. Real Player). The documentary was produced by David Isay (what a coincidence! Isay is from Sound Portraits productions; he’s founder of the StoryCorps Project).

An excerpt from the book’s beginning. Reading group guide.

Edward Ball interviewed: PBS Newshour upon his book winning the National Book Award
The Paula Gordon Show. Radio interview. Summary of interviews, short (3:25) audio excerpt (no transcripts or full audio file, alas)

CNN: A Warrior in Scholar’s Clothing

I’m trying to put a finger on what it is about Slaves in the Family that’s so striking: Certainly the history of the United States as told through the thread of a single family both fascinated and illuminated. It’s been a long time since I studied the American Revolution, when I did, Pennsylvania, Virginia and New England were where it’s at. Those southern states? Not so much. Being from California, I haven’t given South Carolina or Charleston much thought. On the Paula Gordon show, Ball says that 40% of African Americans point to Charleston as the port of entry into the US. That’s comparable to the 40% of European-based immigrants entering the country through Ellis Island. Whoa.

I like the memoir aspects of a person reaching back into his family’s past. It’s the fascination of the attic, or in his case, the special collections that house the collective attics over many generations.

When uncovering the past, what do you do with it?  I admire Ball’s courage to break his family taboos (“There are five things we don’t talk about in the Ball family,” [my father] would say. “Religion, sex, death, money, and the Negroes.”). He talked about the Negroes. He asked about them. He searched for information to discover details of the lives of the Ball plantation slaves. Were they really treated kindly (per family legend)? What about sex between masters and slaves? He goes to the heart of the big elephant in the room, the questions that some would rather ignore. I was riveted by his conversations with African Americans, in which he acknowleded, “My ancestors enslaved your ancestors.”

Ball attends a meeting of the Afro-American Historical and Geneaological Society at a library in Harlem. The meeting is attended by a person he calls Denise Collins, whose people came from the Ball plantation

We got up and went into the hall. it was cream-colored, featureless, and had an unpleasant echo. Denise Collins held out her hand, which trembled visibly. She looked at me with a light in her eyes, bewildered, her expression equal parts anguish and hope. I would like to have opened my arms to her. I would like to have spoken kind words, but I could not bring myself to say them.

As we stood in the dim hall, I realized that I had no credibility with this outwardly gentle strange. in her eyes, I might be no different from the person who had forced her mother’s grandmother, Katie Howard, into the fields. The evidence of my name was against me. I stammered a few words, but as I stood with Denise Collins, I knew that it i was to reach out to her family, and share something with them, I would have to earn the privilege of their company.

Edward Ball even went to Sierra Leone to speak with the descendents of those who sold people into slavery. Through all the past, he arrives at the present, the where are we now? The current generation didn’t actively participate in slavery but is still very affected by it. In tracing what happened then, with honesty and candor, he illuminates a way for the now-living to move forward. (A portion of the proceeds from his book is funding a restitution and memorial projects jointly administered by descendents of slave owners and slaves.)


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Posted by Susan A. Kitchens on March 30, 2006 in • Personal History
4 CommentsPermalink

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Susan, it was good speaking with you at the Alameda Writers Group discussion on April 1, 2006. As promised, I checked out your family oral history website and found it beautifully composed. I did, however find one small error on the “Slaves in the Family” page. The second line, last word is spelled “istory,” and I believe you meant to say “history.” I like your attention to details, the little feathers, the quaint treatment of corners, the earth-tone colors all add to an inviting experience.

  Having written my own memoir, The Male Thing Explained, (please visit my website: I understand the beauty, the power, and the necessity of capturing and documenting the history/herstory of a family. Within one or two generations, old photo albums lose their meaning and impact, since the names of those relatives are often lost forever if not labeled properly. And certainly, the stories accompanying those photos are also lost if there is no sharing from one generation to the next.

  I wish you much success and many generations of acknowledgment for the work, tradition, and legacy you are sharing with those who feel inspired by your website and life’s efforts.

Edward Lee Goldstein  on 04/02  at  10:50 PM

Edward, good catch: Typo fixed. Very true words about how quickly knowledge is lost. Thanks.

Susan A. Kitchens  on 04/02  at  11:12 PM

If you noticed, I ended up posting, almost the same comment twice. I thought by “backing up” to the previous page to access my first posted comment and making some corrections and responding again that it might replace my first comment, but it didn’t. In many sites there is an “edit” and also “delete comment” feature, which follows the thread and allows for comment editing of each responder, but is not available to others. If this site does not already have this, are you planning on adding it? Also, in order to avoid “cyber-stalkers and spammers” (who send out spiders to collect email addresses) many community sites such as “Craigslist” do not post the commenter’s email address, but administrate as “go-betweens” for people who wish to contact the poster. I notice that all my contact info, including email seems to be visible when I visit your site. Is it visible to all other people who visit as well, or only me? Is there a way that a “link” could be set up only to ones URL or ones email address without posting that address on the site? This way the user is protected and may have a way of to give out that info only to appropriate parties of their choose?

Edward Lee Goldstein  on 04/03  at  03:46 AM

What you thought was clicking the back button and re-submitting the post was interpreted by the software that runs this site as a second post.. that is, a duplicate comment. So I disabled one of ‘em.

re: post-editing: The preview button next to the submit button is the means of editing a post. I don’t plan at present to add anything new for comment features. As to a “delete this comment” feature, I dunno. It’s conceivably possible to add that, but I probably won’t. In any case if I were to enable that, it’d work for people who are members of the site, and I don’t think that you are.

No one else sees your email address but you. If you clicked the “remember my personal information” box next to the Name/Email address/web site/ location, the site places a cookie on your computer recalling that info and automatically fills it in the next time you visit, making it convenient for you to comment again (which you have). What the world sees is your name with a link to your web site (which is prolly how you wanted it, no? especially as you mentioned it in the body of your message)

Not everyone sees the same thing. For instance, because I’m logged into this site so I don’t even see the name/email/website/etc., nor do I see the little captcha picture [“I am human and not a spambot”].
Because I am logged into the site, I don’t even see the Name/email address/web site/location forms that you do, nor do I have that little capcha picture. Cause I’m logged in.

I totally and completely understand the concern about email addresses being harvestable by people out there.  I spend far too much of my (otherwise productive) time battling spammers. This past week, I’ve gotten an incoming slew of over 100 spam emails in one swell foop—-that’s not the total mind, you, just that one incident, I’ve spent hours analyzing and chasing down some nasty bits of something called referrer spam that trashes my site logs with useless incoming site referers that are spammers, and observe makes my site logs to this site, and deal with bounced messages from my main domain name being used to spoof outgoing spams. When those spams don’t go to legit email addresses, they all bounce to me.

I hate spammers with a fervent passion.  There’s no way that I’d set up a site that makes it easy for individual or member information to be harvested by spambots. So rest assured, you’re the only one seeing your email address on this site (well, yes, as admin, I see it too in notices I receive about comments to this site and back-end administration of comments). Your email address is safe.

Susan A. Kitchens  on 04/03  at  03:11 PM

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