The black man considers the white. The white man considers the black.
Both gazes questioning. Both gazes direct: Their steady stare a looking glass.
But who is white and who is black if trajectories of blood deem you family?
And how might one account for the space between?
For Edward Ball, the politics of race seeped into his Southern consciousness like sun through a day-porch screen. Within his family, the press of the '60s power and identity movements--in all of their fluorescence and cataclysm--passed through a filter of euphemism and generational silence. All of it diffused like a sharp shaft of light made refined, soft-edged--bearable.
"In the South, I grew up in a segregated society . . . the distance between white folks and black was part of the climate. It wasn't something that was brought to the surface," says Ball from the elevated vantage of the present. "Politics came in over the airwaves. Watts burned. Newark. Detroit. The Black Panther Party formed. Images of men in leather and guns. It was shocking. And there was some buried connection between the politics of black consciousness and this family legacy that we carried. But I wasn't able to articulate it."
But when Ball pressed the buzzer of Beau Ray Fleming's L.A. apartment more than a year ago, he was breaking with history--his family's encoded tendency to run to the very corners of silence.
That buzzer knocked down the first wall. There would be, he knew, many others.
"What do you think about the fact you and I are distant cousins?" Ball asked his estranged kin.
"I always knew you were there," replied Fleming, opening the door a bit wider, "I just didn't know you. It was like a missing link, but you always knew what the components were."
"The connection is distant," Ball said.
"But it's real. And not only that, it's a journey."
History of Family, Nation Intertwined
This journey, this "family legacy," which Ball has obsessively turned over and over in his thoughts, is now contained between two cloth covers. Resurrecting 300 years in 500 pages, its centerpiece is a flourishing family tree. And, since its publication, his family's story, every part American, has built and burned blood bridges within and across racial borders traditionally designated as black or white--not both.
Dubbed "lyric and Faulknerian" by some reviewers, a "self-flagellating" apologia by others, "Slaves in the Family" (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), told in triptych, is family history, American history and investigative journalism, with memoir wrapped around it as if a gilded frame.
It is not a portrait that one might commission, in which kind light might soften the imperfections--a nose straightened, a chin sharpened. And it is most certainly not the evocation that Ball's slaveholding forebear, John Ball, had in mind when in 1786 he began his own retelling of the family's spoils and successes, "A Short History of the Family of the Balls," and implored his progeny to record their own segment of the tale.
Beginning with Elias "Redcap" Ball, (Edward's great-great-great-great-great-great grandfather) and his transatlantic crossing from Devonshire, England, in 1698, the Balls, within 167 years, constructed and operated an elaborate slave dynasty. Their 25 plantations, whose cash crop was Carolina Gold (rice), thrived along the Cooper River north of Charleston, S.C., where, writes Ball, ". . . close to 4,000 black people were born into slavery to the Balls or bought by them."
As the dynasty tumbled with the ruin of war and the salve of abolition, the talk of the family's slaveholding past seldom passed lip-to-ears, unless as a salty quip that urged avoidance.
For Edward Ball, the silence was provocative. Uneasy. Incitive. It masked unfinished business of the worst kind.
"The slave legacy is kind of the infrastructure of American society, but it's also the infrastructure of white and black identities," he says. "In my own personal case, doing psychoanalysis on myself was trying to sort out the ways that the Ball family plantations created me. To see if there was any of the infrastructure left in the family name that had expressed itself in my personal identity."
Born in Savannah, Ga., Ball, 39, recalls that the shades were often drawn on the discussion of race and its intricacies.
"It was part of the landscape--the distance between white folks and black. My dad was a conservative Southern Episcopal priest by the standards of today, but by the standards in which he lived he was not. He believed in the integration of the church and would take us to black churches because he thought it was the right thing to do."
After a childhood of Southern summers, Ball wound north to Brown University in Rhode Island and eventually refashioned himself a New York journalist, working for alternative newspapers, critiquing art, cinema and architecture.