It’s not everyone who wants to understand the motivations of a relative who was a white supremacist, but Edward Ball is not everyone. Ball’s 1998 National Book Award-winner Slaves In the Family, was a brave look at his family’s history of South Carolina plantation life and slave ownership. Now, in his latest, Life of a Klansman, he delves into the history of Polycarp Constant Lecorgne, his great-great-grandfather, a Louisiana carpenter who fought for the Confederacy and later became a member of the Ku Klux Klan.
Trying to understand what made Lecorgne tick was, for Ball, not a particularly easy task.
“It was difficult,” says Ball, who was interviewed by The Daily Beast by phone from his home in Connecticut. “We have a habit of condescending to people who lived before our own generation and pity those people who were unlucky enough to miss out on the enlightened life we have achieved. I had to struggle against this in an effort to get inside the mind of this man and narrate what drew him into the movement that was established to enforce white supremacy.”
Ball’s book is not just an inside look at the economic, cultural, and racial forces that created Lecorgne’s hatred. It’s also a fascinating history of New Orleans and Louisiana, detailing a multi-cultural and multi-racial society which was also home to some of the worst post-Civil War white supremacist atrocities. This is not the NOLA of zydeco, Cajun/creole cuisine, Mardi Gras, and laissez les bons temps rouler (Cajun French for "let the good times roll.").
New Orleans is “less well-known as the laboratory where white supremacy was designed and perfected,” says Ball. “As it turns out, white supremacy is shaped as an idea in the late 1800s, and it’s grown up later than the period of enslavement and became a powerful ideology long after the Civil War.”
NOLA was, in fact, once the largest slave market in the country, and was the site of the 1866 Mechanics Institute Massacre, in which over 200 Blacks were killed and, says Ball in the book, is “the first spasm of the panic that goes under the name of Ku-Klux.” Not to be outdone, the small town of Colfax, La. was the site of an 1873 massacre, which took the lives of 150 Black men and women, and was the worst episode of race killing during the Reconstruction era.
It was these mass killings, and others like them, that really jumped out at Ball while researching his book. “To read over and over about the massacres and the riots that are repeated decade after decade after decade, in which white gangs are brutalizing neighborhoods and people of color” was revelatory, says Ball, “but it’s a through line in American history.”
Researching white supremacist atrocities and Reconstruction history was the easy part for Ball; much of it was already available in the archives. But getting inside Lecorgne’s head was another matter altogether.
“If you had to make an inventory of my sources,” says Ball, “10 percent were family oral tradition, archive were 70 percent, conjecture were 20 percent. Only one in a thousand people leave records behind when they die, so the stories of millions of men and women who were manual workers, they left no records. So I turned to things like military records, court records, trying to piece together their lives. The reality is the archive when documenting working-class white people or Blacks of any generation is an empty box and creates a problem for storytellers.”
Nevertheless, Life of a Klansman is not only a successfully told tale of a white everyman and the critical times he lived in, but its historical background is totally relevant to the ongoing racial conflicts that affect us today. Black Lives Matter, white racism, white guilt, our reckoning with the Confederate legacy, you name it, Ball’s book relates to it. Especially when it comes to how we respond to the past, and white identity.
“We want to caricature the past, in either positive or negative terms,” says Ball, whose book refuses to do either. “It’s a kind of refuge where we place our own aggressions that we want to renounce and we want to assign them to people who lived before us. There’s also the romance of the past, that we comfort ourselves with. We use the past, we make it work for us in a way to deceive ourselves intentionally with it.”
Or, as he says in the book, “the past feels like a comfortable place to make moral judgments…. The desires and motives of supremacist zealots are within the array of desires and interests that human beings have. Do our moral judgments depend on turning the people we judge into caricatures?”
So if nothing else, Life of a Klansman understands Polycarp Constant Lecorgne as a real person and a man of his time: poorly educated, economically deprived, forced to endure the deaths of several of his young children, resentful of freed Blacks and the voting and other rights given to them during Reconstruction. All of which leads him to join the KKK, which Ball correctly calls “the first American terrorism.”
A terrorism which has never left us. As Ball considers the present day, both the rise in racist violence during the Trump presidency and the ways in which whites are trying to understand their ongoing complicity in a racist society, he easily links the past to the present. “There is a tribal nature of white identity," he4 says, "which we repress and deny. We white people have trouble regarding ourselves as racial subjects, as people being motivated by a racial identity. And I think some whites are becoming aware of being formed by their racial identity. I think this summer there are signs of a reckoning with white racial identity, and the racial history of the country. I think we are trying to change the narrative about our country, and I hope this book will contribute to that process.”