Ball’s visit resembles the penance gestures he made to descendants of enslaved people his family held on multiple plantations until the Civil War, a personal journey he recounted in his 1998 National Book Award-winning “Slaves in the Family.” Such symbolic healing efforts raise a crucial national question about racial reckoning during this year’s broad-based protest movement for racial justice acutely set against the Trump administration’s overt racism.
Many Whites in recent months have become more aware that such a reckoning is essential if structural racism is to be dismantled. George Floyd’s death has laid bare murderous police violence against the Black community. The coronavirus has exposed stark Black-White economic and health disparities. Segregation in housing and public schools persists. And mass incarceration is arguably the equivalent of a new Jim Crow, in the words of scholar Michelle Alexander. In these severe but potentially transformative times, “Life of a Klansman” implicitly asks how White Americans can meaningfully confront their relationship to enduring white supremacy, whether they are directly tied to enslavers or terrorists, as Ball is, or linked less detectably by reaping the inescapable benefits of a deeply embedded racial privilege that is slavery’s lasting consequence.
In his earlier book, Ball disinterred his family’s enslaving history from a 10,000-document archive, but in “Life of a Klansman,” he takes a more speculative approach, sketching Lecorgne’s biography from oral family stories and public records. Ball shapes his forebear into a white-supremacist Everyman. He’s a family-oriented carpenter with two enslaved people in the 1850s who is traumatized fighting the Civil War and then, after returning to New Orleans in 1865, loses the home he built for his family and cannot find permanent employment. He is outraged by a new order where Washington imposes military government and Black activists claim political power. Lecorgne takes refuge in a White terrorist brotherhood called the Ku-klux, a name Ball traces to a single drinking session of six ex-Confederate soldiers in Tennessee. The Ku-kluxers and the Knights of the White Camellia, which Lecorgne later joins, are not ritual terrorists but insurrectionist guerrillas intent on reclaiming White Southern power.
Ball succeeds in the delicate task of conveying empathy for Lecorgne while expressing his utter repulsion. Lacking first-person accounts, Ball imagines Lecorgne’s inner voice, which also represents the collective mentality of street-level White racism. “If the blacks get the vote, they will flatten us,” Lecorgne thinks in the days before the massacre where Alfred Capla is blinded. “Let them make one wrong step, and they will pay.” Ball uses this paraphrasing approach inventively to enter the minds of various White figures, though at times he transitions confusingly between these voices and his own historical narration.
The book’s most compelling character is not Lecorgne but New Orleans itself, culturally and racially layered by multiple colonizations and the slave trade, where before the Civil War one could hear in the streets Spanish, English, French, a modified French called Gombo and several West African languages. The city had a unique, convoluted race and color taxonomy that included the designations of free person of color, slave, mulatto, griffe, quadroon, metis and sang-mêlé. Each named some combination of White, Black and Native American, while Creole referred to the French-speaking Whites and free Blacks native to Louisiana. The city’s energetic center, its Black heartbeat, was Congo Square, where on Sundays enslaved Blacks would drum and dance with an openly African expression forbidden anywhere else in the United States. New Orleans’s racial brutality before the Civil War was embodied in its citywide slave trading, while in the 10 years after, which is the book’s focus, it was the omnipresent White gangs that paraded the streets by day like it was White hate Mardi Gras and lynched Black citizens by night.
Ball writes this New Orleans race history into a broader period narrative of the white-supremacist South, and Lecorgne’s biography into a multigenerational family story. He also includes his experience of meeting several descendants of Black city residents harmed by post-Civil War terrorism and analyzes the 19th-century anthropological pseudoscience that provided a basis for white-supremacist ideology.
Throughout, he writes to a White audience, using the pronoun “we” and the family moniker for Lecorgne he first hears as a child, “our Klansman.” Ball says his family story is more common than most would think. Based on his informal calculations, he states that “fifty percent of whites can claim a family link to the Klu-klux.” Ball then turns to face his audience. “Perhaps the gentle reader of these words is one. If not, someone near you.” He even refers to Whites as a tribe, suggesting some kind of unifying mental kinship. While Ball may be well-intentioned in using this language to challenge those who might identify with his burdened past, because he does not explicitly acknowledge this audience selection, he effectively disregards readers of color, as though they presumably wouldn’t choose to engage the history of White terrorism or a White writer who grapples with his relation to it.
Ball periodically steps back from the narrative to wrestle with how to reckon with this history. He reflects somewhat abstractly: “I am trying to make this thing visible, whiteness. It looks transparent and flimsy, maybe. Some would say it does not even exist.” He goes to Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalytic theory of the unconscious for an answer. “Inside the unconscious, I think, is a submerged island of whiteness. It is like a landmass.”
Whiteness may indeed be an elusive mental construct, but in 2020, it’s also easily locatable in human devastation. Ball doesn’t ultimately connect Lecorgne and the systemic racism he embodies with contemporary white supremacy. In the book’s introduction, Ball mentions that President Trump’s father, Fred, was arrested at a New York Klan rally in 1927. The implication is clear. But Ball doesn’t return to Trump, to the deadly 2017 Charlottesville white-nationalist rally or any present-day reverberations of his Louisiana chronicle. The book was completed before George Floyd’s death and this year’s national self-scrutiny on race. But given the story’s murderous New Orleans setting, Ball might have explored the resonance today in a city of profound racial disparities, where the federal government’s neglectful response to Hurricane Katrina was deemed by some to be blatant, institutional racism.
While sitting in a coffee shop with one of Capla’s descendants, Ball notes almost in passing the chilling fact that Louisiana is the state with the highest Black incarceration rate. He might have added that the country overall has the world’s highest incarceration rate. Lecorgne would probably hail this condition as the modern-day fulfillment of one devoted Klansman’s dream.
“Life of a Klansman” is valuable as a self-searching profile of ancestral atrocity. But without confronting America’s present-day white-supremacist severities, Ball ultimately lands softly on the bloody terrain.