Tuesday, February 01, 2000

Skeletons in the American family closet

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        The man begins by talking about Oprah Winfrey. He has appeared twice on her show.

        “Oprah is about 5-foot-6. When the camera is on, she is the engaging person you know. During the breaks, there's no small talk.”

        Crossing one khaki-clad leg over the other, he unhurriedly describes the television studio — “like going to a military compound” — where he was frisked before being sent to the green room.

        By now, the students at Seven Hills Upper School are leaning forward. Rapt.

        Edward Ball has made a connection and told a story. Taking his time. This is his specialty.

        Now that he has their attention, he gets to the point, the reason he was asked to be on Oprah's show, the reason he won the National Book Award, the reason his own family tried to warn him off. “What you are doing can only cause trouble,” a cousin told him forcefully.

        In 1994, Edward Ball decided he “wanted to talk to people who had been enslaved by my own ancestors.” Worse, he wanted to tell the world what he discovered.

        First he told an audience on National Public Radio, then wrote a book, Slaves in the Family.

        Mr. Ball, the descendant of South Carolina plantation owners who “for 170 years enslaved about 4,000 people on 25 plantations,” tells the students that when his bookwas published in 1998, “it sent shock waves through my own family.”

        Family lore had it, of course, that the Ball rice farmers were benevolent keepers. Gentle masters. Edward Ball repeats this fairy tale to a descendant of a Ball slave, who shrieks with bitter laughter, telling a story in which a “kindly” Ball intervenes in the beating of her grand-aunt.

        “I'll lick Rachel myself,” the plantation master tells his overseer.

        Mr. Ball says he “did not shy away from the bad parts. We were partners in violence and non-consensual sex and the purchase of children.” Ugly drama delivered in dry, scholarly tones.

Conspiracy of lies
        In his mid-30s, Mr. Ball is pale and slender with closely cropped curly hair. A rather nice smile, which he uses sparingly. Tattersall plaid shirt, good blazer. He looks like a guy who drives a Saab and plays squash.

        “You're always reminded,” he says of his Southern heritage, “of your rich, powerful past. But you are never reminded of how you got that way.”

        Napoleon, who knew something of these matters, said that “history is a set of lies agreed upon.”

        Edward Ball just couldn't bring himself to agree.

        “Plantations of the old South damaged the lives of millions of Americans. Not just black people,” he says. “It left us white people with a feeling of deservedness, entitlement, ownership. It has taken an effort of will to unlearn some of this.”

        He plowed through 10,000 pages of Ball family history, rambled from South Carolina to California to Africa and back again, untangling an untidy plot with an enormous and confusing cast of characters.

        “My father used to talk about the plantations once owned by the Ball family. Dad never said much about the slaves. I wanted to put their lives on an equal footing with the lives of the whites, to learn what they laughed at, how they worked, loved, worshiped. I wanted to write a black and white story — not an exclusively black story, not an exclusively white one, because we have enough of those — but a shared history.”

        Ed Rigaud, the guiding light and generous heart behind the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, says “Edward Ball is the living, breathing Freedom Center. He has the stories we want to tell. Knowing the truth can be both painful and exhilarating. But we need to talk, take the cover off. Even the painful parts.”

        I think of my friend Ed as I watch Edward Ball with the youngsters at Seven Hills. Making connections. Telling a story.

        It's a start.

        Laura Pulfer's column appears in the Enquirer on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. E-mail her at laurapulfer@enquirer.com, call 768-8393 or fax 768-8340. She can be heard Monday mornings on WVXU radio (91.7 FM), and as a regular commentator on National Public Radio's Morning Edition.