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Ancestors and Answers

TIMES STAFF WRITER

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?

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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.

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“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.”

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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.

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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.

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“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.

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But life is full of switchbacks. And he found himself, gradually, considering legacy. Not just the rote milestones and signposts that make up the map of a family’s particular oral tradition, but the words that somehow provide analysis, explanation, context.

“As a journalist,” says Ball, “I had been interested in how politics expressed themselves through cultural products. And right in my own life, right in my own family story, there was an intensely political story. It was a sleeping giant.”

Ball, a tall, lean man, has in a certain sense shrugged off much of the weight of his forebears’ excesses. He bears no hint of his parent’s itinerant life traveling the South, his speech clipped and razored to a point. His suits, pinstriped, steel gray, bespeak urban hustle. Some things, however, linger--"the moisture, the smells . . . the pine trees on the one side and the bog and the marsh, the swamps on the other. The heat.”

It’s these things that imprint themselves on you, he makes plain, not the burden of guilt about the family’s past.

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“A person cannot be culpable for the acts of others, long dead,” Ball makes clear early in the text. “Rather than responsible, I felt accountable for what had happened, called on to try to explain it.”

‘A Desire to Give Everyone Voice’

Slavery, a coded word, Ball has found, inspires the same level of sputtering anger and nervousness on all sides: Those who carry on their backs the legacies of families who sold, families who bought and families who squirmed in the middle.

Ball began his formal search in bite-sized increments. A radio documentary served as preamble. Its success opened the door to a book contract. All this, says Ball, caused “a miniature crisis . . . it was traumatizing to the family . . . it divided them immediately. Young against the old, parents against children.”

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Raged one family elder: “To do this is to condemn your ancestors! You’re going to dig up my grandfather and hang him.”

That story is as vast as it is freighted. It bumps along an unpaved road of American thought: with layers of pain and scattered misgivings, anger and tentativeness, ignorance and inarticulateness. Ball has taken on a spirit-testing load, and at moments the journey feels overwhelming, but the lyricism of the reflective prose acts as the silver through-line.

The wills, birth and death certificates, the slave lists and census tracts taken singularly wouldn’t and couldn’t tell the whole story.

“I saw this body of paper, and I [was] looking at the lives of people,” says Ball, “and I felt this kind of obligation to bring this back to life. They’d lived in silence, they lived in anonymity, and I wanted to bring their lives up to the level of the white folks who lived conspicuously and in public.”

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Working in a drafty Charleston manse, Ball took 3 1/2 years to stitch the story together. His starting point was the copious records and legends that the Balls kept as religiously as a teenager would a journal. There were regular meetings of a black genealogical society in Harlem to attend, research assistants who aided his bleary-eyed attempts to make sense of the peculiar algebra of census data versus slave lists.

The process upended his life: He made friends of enemies, enemies of friends. The most devastating casualty, says Ball through a bottomless pause: ". . . My girlfriend and I separated, and that was a terrible casualty of this decision of mine.”

*

Pressing forward--to New York, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, even Africa--Ball paid awkward, sometimes tense, visits to descendants of Ball slaves and those black families linked to the family by blood. Among them: Georgianna Gadsden Richardson, a direct descendant of Angola Amy, an African woman who had been bought by Elias Ball to work Comingtee Plantation in 1736; Thomas P. Martin, a seventh-generation descendant of Priscilla from Sierra Leone bought by Second Elias in 1756; Carolyn Smalls Goodson, descendant of Frederick Poyas, who, according to family lore, was the mixed-blood son of James Poyas, a great-grandson of “Red Cap,” who had a liaison with a Limerick Plantation field hand named Diana.

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With his family’s meticulous documents, juxtaposed against black oral tradition, Ball began to assemble shared histories. The grist of the story, he began to learn, was embedded within the intersections--where the lineage parallels became perpendicular. And quite quickly he found that although he held a profound gift, he also revisited families with a package of pain that some had chosen not to acknowledge, let alone unwrap.

“It was a deeply ambiguous gift,” Ball suggests, nodding with the weight of meaning, something far greater than apology (a formality that felt flimsy if not inappropriate). “A gift I wasn’t sure that people would accept, but as it turns out that they wanted it very badly.”

Beau Ray Fleming was one who did.

A South Carolina native, Fleming is a bit of a renaissance man, a composer, arranger, record producer and all-parts suave, self-made businessman.

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Fleming clearly remembers the day he took that first phone call from Ball, out of the blue.

“I’m an open type person. Whatever you bring is not going to bother me. And I love an adventure. . . . So when he told me that we were probably cousins,” says Fleming with a wink, “I told him, ‘I knew you were out there.”

Indeed, Fleming knew much about his family, lucky enough to have a relative who was a genealogy zealot and had heard of Ball’s search.

“So there he stood at the door--tall white man, his hair kind of a little curly, telling me we were cousins,” Fleming remembers, his story arcing, spaced with irony. “He expounded--a little at a time. Not in the most open manner, just like playing chess. He had to feel me out. I had to feel him out. All the blanks hadn’t been filled in yet: You go, I go.”

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Over the space of months, talks and walks, Fleming and Ball, considering the legacy, carefully constructed a span.

“Blind trust, I told him, only God gets that from me,” says Fleming, “I told Ed, you have to be careful how you talk to black people, that he has to remember that he’s talking to people who have been exploited, who figure he’s up to white trickery again.”

Fleming was impressed, however, with what all that Ball had worked out in his head, long before their meeting. That those who participated would as well be compensated for their stories.

“He was always cognizant of that. That impressed me. I got that he was basically a decent person. . . . He wasn’t motivated by shame or guilt, but with the desire of giving everyone voice. Right and wrong, black and white.”

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Past Weighs Heavily; Book Lightens Load

Just how deep distrust runs Ball has come to know intimately. One woman suddenly shook by the prospect shut down all communication, refused his calls: “It became her refrain. This is my story. You are not going to tell my story. We were in galleys at this point and had to redesign the book. It was a nightmare.” But he says, “It was almost surprising that I didn’t encounter more people who had an anger that was uncontrollable that I had triggered somehow.”

For Ball, as for those Balls of his generation, seeing the words on a page within a new context has opened a valve: “I think the younger generation wants to have some relief from the heaviness of this legacy. They want to find some ways of unbottling it. It has been enormously difficult to find a language for me to talk about this stuff. And I imagine it might be the same for many thousands of white folks who come from families like this.”

Ball begins the book’s journey by letting the reader glimpse the emotional seeds of his interior quest. But as the narrative broadens, he moves further away from self, and how this search might have imprinted on him the gifts bestowed in the process becomes unclear, indistinct.

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Sitting back, reconsidering his redrawn portrait, Ball takes a moment to answer: “I didn’t want that to dominate the narrative . . . the story is much bigger than me. I knew as a white person that my whiteness is a product of blackness, to put it in the most abstract way, but now I know what that means on the ground level. And my life is deeply interconnected with the lives of black people, as are the lives of all whites, although we don’t normally acknowledge all of it. I’ve learned that to cross the color line, to break that taboo--well, the sky doesn’t fall. It brings immediate relief.”

Relieving the wound within his family may take a bit more. Some time. Some talk. And whatever form the next family reunion takes, Ball suspects, “it’s going to be . . . weird. But it certainly will be different.”

*

For those who are inconsolable, says Ball, it is a process. “I don’t want to say that they are hurt and nursing their wounds. I think they are frightened. In the little milieu of Charleston society where there are dozens of families like mine, this family is marked as the family who has gone through this process.”

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But Ball hasn’t chosen to throw a stink bomb and run. Instead, he has chosen to complete the circle--with his eyes on some land and a life in South Carolina with a new partner.

“Many people have said to me, ‘Well, you don’t have to live here.’ And that got me thinking. I could just write this book and run away, go back to New York. But I had fallen in love with the South all. But it does put a different face on things, if I’m willing to be down there. And take the heat.”


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