Beyond the Pale

Reading between the lines.
March 4 1998 3:30 AM

Beyond the Pale

A white man takes on his family's slave-owning past.

Slaves in the Family
By Edward Ball
Farrar, Straus & Giroux; 504 pages; $30

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In 10 years as an essayist for the New York Times, I have received a good deal of hate mail--the most amusing from people who discover that I am black and accuse me of faking a white, WASP-y name. For the record, the name Staples arrived in America with British plantation owners who settled in Virginia in the 1600s and probably enjoyed copious carnal relations with the slave women they owned. Lust across the color line was so common in the plantation South, where slaves often outnumbered masters by vast margins, that whole white families and communities disappeared across the color line. By the 1850s, close to one in six Negroes in the country was of racially mixed ancestry.      By now, every black family that calls itself American has a white relative--most often a slave master--somewhere in its past. My great-grandfather, John Wesley Staples (1865-1940), was born of a slave master and a slave woman and sufficiently pleased with the heritage that he named his first son, my grandfather Marshal (1898-1969), for his father, the plantation manager.

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T he question of who slept with whom and why is probably the most heated issue in the scholarship of slavery. The idea that a slave might bear any affection at all for a master is particularly troubling to modern descendants, many of whom prefer to envision slaves gunning for insurrection every minute of the day. But not every Negro could be a cutlass-wielding avenger on the good ship Amistad. After several generations of bondage--the hard cases having escaped or been hanged or mutilated--militancy gave way to quiet coexistence. Mulattoes like John Wesley remembered slaveholding families favorably, because they were related to them by blood; they also benefited from nearness to the Big House, with access to books, apprenticeships, and the intimate contact that allowed them to judge themselves favorably against the people who owned them. It should come as no surprise that the black politicians who came to power during the Reconstruction were overwhelmingly mulattoes. So were the leading lights of the Harlem Renaissance (Jean Toomer, Langston Hughes, and Countee Cullen) and the first giants of the civil-rights movement, including W.E.B. du Bois, James Weldon Johnson, and Walter White.      Black people who make too much of white ancestry are routinely charged with self-hatred. White people who characterize plantation owners as benefactors--as some must have been--risk being viewed as nostalgic for the institutions of human bondage. As a white descendant of one of the most prominent slaveholding families in the South, Edward Ball comes under the added suspicion of wanting to make his forebears look like nice people. To inoculate Slaves in the Family against this charge, Ball, formerly a writer for the Village Voice, needed to master his regional history, step around the rhetorical land mines, and avoid sentimentality at all costs. He missed on all three counts. The extensive literature on mixed-race Negroes and their complicated roles in South Carolina society seems to have eluded Ball utterly, leaving a big hole in his story. His many references to benevolence among the slaveholding Balls make him vulnerable to critics predisposed to see him as an apologist. But even with these defects, Slaves in the Family is an important historical document that supplies names and faces for both the slavers and the enslaved and shows how the legacies of slavery linger still.       Edward Ball's ancestors were the superslavers of South Carolina. The family owned nearly 4,000 human beings on 25 plantations that operated during many of the great events of American history--from the Revolutionary War to the Civil War, from the slave revolts that inspired the Negroes and terrified South Carolina whites to the Emancipation Proclamation. The Balls kept voluminous records that are now held at university and historical archives throughout the South. These papers tell of weddings and funerals, of slaves bought and sold, of the doctors who attended the slaves, and the amount of money spent on ice-cream cones when the family took slaves along on its trip to New York City in 1796.

T he epic story begins when the family patriarch, Elias "Redcap" Ball, relocated from England to the South Carolina rice country in 1698. The empire falls more than 160 years later, when Emancipation frees the slaves and ruins the already declining plantations, causing the Balls to slip out of Southern royalty and into the ranks of professionals, and lower. Edward Ball spends a good deal of time tracking Ball slave descendants, of whom there may now be as many as 100,000.      His interviews with the descendants make up the most disturbing and revealing parts of this book. The encounters are almost unfailingly tense and embarrassing (click for a particularly embarrassing example), partly because Ball has no agenda beyond collecting these people for his narrative but mainly because he sees them as exotic and impenetrably other. He captures them in superficial, thumbnail descriptions that inevitably compare their skin to "brown paper," "cherry wood," "cardboard," "mahogany"--and eerily resemble slave-era descriptions one might read in plantation manifests. Having enriched Ball lives in the past, the survivors are being called upon to perform that function again.

T he mulatto class that played such an enormous role in slave-era Charleston makes only a cameo appearance in this book. South Carolina was amazingly tolerant of free mulattoes. Historians tell us that mulatto families like the Kinlochs, Noisettes, and McKinlays were nearly as rich--and almost as white--as well-to-do neighbors such as the Balls. These mulattoes crossed the line often and blended into white families. During slavery, racial intermarriage was never prohibited in South Carolina and was never punished by law. This arrangement held even during the 1820s, when a legendary slave named Denmark Vesey was arrested and hanged for a plot to overthrow white rule and slaughter the masters.      Ball and many of his relatives seem determined to see their ancestors as. But several of the kindnesses they describe could easily be accounted for by the fact that the slaves in question were related to the Balls or other whites through blood or sexual favors.

T he Vesey plot itself offers an intriguing example. Two Ball slaves--Peter Poyas and Paris Ball--were implicated and arrested. Poyas and Vesey were hanged, along with almost 35 others. With Paris about to ascend the gallows, however, the Balls successfully petitioned the governor to deport rather than hang him. Ball attributes this act to his family's warm feelings for its Negroes. But given the lengths to which the family went, it is just as likely that Paris was a blood relative, fathered by someone among the Balls or their company.      The same principle applies to a series of letters in which a former slave expresses undying loyalty to the family and weeps bitterly at their tragedies. The slave, we are told, was probably a mulatto, fathered by a dandy young friend of the Balls'., Ball takes the ex-slave's letter as proof that the Balls were relatively gentle masters and that the savageries so common to other plantations passed this Ball plantation by.      Some slave owners were surely more humane than others. But given the explosive nature of the issue, a white descendant of a slaving family needs to tread carefully. He also needs to listen intently. As though questioning Ball's ancestry, one descendant tells him bluntly that everyone who looks white ain't white. The descendant says: "The same way how the slave master was slipping around in the [slave] houses at night, his [wife] was also slipping around in the big house during the day. It happened." Another relative of the Ball slaves' remarks upon Edward Ball's curly hair and asks if he is trying to turn black. These comments seem to zip by the author unnoticed. But in the American game of race, nothing is incidental.

Brent Staples is on the editorial board of the New York Times and is a member of Slate's book-reviewing team.