Know Thy Family History

Who Am I?

I recall asking my parents if they knew anything about their grandparents to which a look of bewilderment gracefully set over their faces.

“No, not really.”

Knowing one’s family line or rather, their ancestry is a luxury shared and enjoyed by the likes of wealthy royals, kings, and white people of European descent. 

It is quite uncommon for someone of African roots to look up their family line through a DNA test like 23 and Me or something similar to find anyone of high repute worth celebrating and emulating in their family history. If you consider the circumstances in which most of our African ancestors lived and were treated for the last five hundred or so years you’d realize that much of the history we want is there, well, was there but was intentionally deleted by people who thought of them, our ancestors, as not worthy of a history story worth keeping and retelling. 

Unless that person was Nat Turner.

But anyway. 

I asked my parents how far back they thought they could trace their ancestry and they were unsure. They mentioned just how complicated it was for Brazilian officials to keep all that data in one place and that most of that information might’ve been lost by now. 

And this saddened me. It saddens me greatly. Not because some malcontent administrator didn’t keep my family records locked away in an airtight safe somewhere but because I’m sure most of the records about people who look like me were intentionally discarded because we were never people worth keeping information about other than who we may have belonged to in one point and where we were sold to next in another. 

One of my co-workers is British. She disdains the idea of being considered an English woman because her parents are from an East Asian nation and she and her siblings were the first in her family to be born in the United Kingdom. But she does not identify herself as English even though she was born in England. She’s British, you see, she is a proud citizen of the British Empire, albeit a proud daughter of an East Asian nation as well. 

Her husband, however, is an Englishman to the T, or, to the tea. I’m not sure. And he was able to trace his family line hundreds and hundreds of years back, even finding connections between himself and the queen of England! 

Great Scott!

But it’s beautiful, enviable even, to see how someone might have such a robust family line and just how far back one can trace it. 

Another co-worker of mine claims he can trace his French-Canadian family line back to the inception of Canada. Hundreds of years back. 

And most of the people who can trace their dad’s side of the family back to George Washington or mom’s side of the family back to Mary Shelley have a common denominator between them: they’re white. 

Now. I don’t want the reader to misunderstand me as saying colored people do not have ancestors of royal blood or nobility. The opposite is true. Many of us descent from kings, kingdoms, and empires that have since gone extinct. The truth is that the empires of other nations have outlasted if not outright eradicated the ones we descended from. Either through imperial rule, colonial conquest, or economic terrorism, it doesn’t matter, some won, and many lost. 

The ones that lost have only passed on bodies for which the victors used to run their well-oiled empires for centuries to come. 

And this brings me to the topic of today’s post. 

Know Thy Family History

Why is it important to know who you are or rather who you came from?

This brings me back to my favorite read of 2021 called The Life of a Klansman by Edward Ball. Ball, a white man, works through his family line to discover that one of his great-great-grandfathers, if not further back, was a nefarious Klansman in the American south. The dejected man, Lecorgne, is what his name was, was the son of a racist French immigrant or runaway, whichever, an unwanted immigrant, who settled in Louisiana and had many children, one of which would later own slaves, would fight for the Confederate cause against the Union armies of the North, for the preservation of slavery. This same man would be captured during the war and then be held as a prisoner of war by the Union forces. He would then be liberated at the end of the war and return home as an embarrassment and failure. He would lose his property, his house and his slaves, and his honor. And this would lead him and his fellow disgruntled loser Confederate veteran friends to form local militias that would terrorize and Lynch black Americans and harass white people who dared help the newly emancipated souls. 

I loved this book so much because the author, Edward Ball, does not shy away from the macabre hatred his ancestor had for black Americans. He picks through evidence, photos, family accounts, newspapers, and journals, and recreates the world that made a hateful man into a terrorist hero for the disgruntled South. 

Here is my review of this phenomenal book:

“The cult of the individual that dominates modern minds, the ideology of the ‘I,’ prevents most of us from seeing ourselves as products of the chronicle and choices of our predecessors.” – Edward Ball

When asked what my favorite book is I have a difficult time giving the inquisitive questioner an answer as I am dubious of the answer myself. What is my favorite book? Is there a genre, a style, an era, or even an event that pulls my attention away from the world and into a book?

I have found that this book, Life of a Klansman, is close to whatever I consider being very high on my list of most prized and informative books. It arrives there not because its content holds a treasure of poetic beauty, of historical triumphs worth emulating, or persons worth celebrating.

It is a book that shines a light, perhaps a light too bright on the causation and legacy of white supremacy in western society. From the pseudo-science of ‘scientific racism’ to the ideological proposition that because there are different races we must therefore accept that some are to be subjugated to others.

This nefarious motif of the last five hundred years or so is still with us. Many within our society carry the burden of superiority not understanding that this weight is crushing them to death. Crushing them into non-existence.

Edward Ball has the guts and grit of a man willing to look not into the abyss of darkness but at a past of plainness. A plain society of good and acceptable, and at times unimitable persons who worked, sold, bought, ate, drank, and worshipped as we do today but underneath this facade of normalcy they enacted all sorts of evils against people of color for centuries.

It isn’t a history of ‘bad racism’ as we have come to accept the term today, albeit erroneously so, but of standard racism that was so broadly accepted in early American history that it was not seen as racism at all. Because the subjugation of people of color was such a norm, such an accepted moral good, a societal blessing, an economic investment, a social experiment worthy of exploitation, no, sorry, of American Renaissance and capitalistic success that to disrupt it meant that a Civil War would have to happen to determine whether blacks retained their status as chattel or as citizens.

Mr. Ball traces his family lineage to a disgruntled, dejected, ‘little white’ or rather, as the Creole people understood, ‘petit blanc’ who was a resident of the not-too-ancient city of New Orleans who participated in the slave trade, benefited from it, joined the Confederacy to protect this peculiar institution, and later joined different terrorist entities, either the Ku Klux Klan or the Knights of the White Camellia or the White League or whatever other bands of marauding madmen that existed at that time to further terrorize the black community and their white friends.

His was the name of a poet, prophet, and saint, Polycarp Constant Lecorgne. Unfortunately, nothing about his life was poetic, prophetic, or saintly. This man was a dejected human being. Edward Ball condemns him as well but I have more reasons to despise the man as someone who would have been murdered by him had I been his contemporary. Either a victim of his rifle or a servant to his whip.

This Constant was a negro-hating man who would have kept black people under his subjugation until his death were it not for the American Civil War. During the war, his company was court-martialed for inciting a riot within the ranks of confederate soldiers and he was dishonorably discharged from service only to later rejoin the Confederate army under a pseudonym. Anything to fight for his right to his property, ‘the blacks.’ After losing the war he would return home, an embarrassment and broke, since his wealth was lost, meaning, his black slaves were gone, legally so and his insurgency had been wiped out by the Union army. Racist, hate-filled, White, and disgruntled, he and fellow Confederate war veterans vowed to push against the Reconstruction ideals of an intrusive Union army and leadership. ‘How dare these Yankees to take our property and now force us to be monitored and policed by blacks in Union uniforms, mounted on horseback with rifles in hand. We won’t stand for it.’

He and his disgraced Lost Cause henchmen did not give up on their cause, leading raid after raid, lynching after lynching, uprising after the uprising to destroy the morale of the Northern States, freed blacks, and local politicians who all shared the hopes of reconstructing the United States of America and reunifying the Northern states and the Southern states. From daily killings of blacks and harassing of whites who socialized with blacks to voter intimidation, fire bombings, marauding, raping, and participating in multiple riots that killed hundreds of black Americans and later participating and being arrested for and later released and acquitted of all charges in participating in the South’s version of a Bier Hall Putsch. The South would not relent and in a particular street battle, Battle of Liberty Place, they managed to kill Union soldiers, mostly black ones, and capture and kill Metropolitan policemen, mostly black, and regain control of their city districts in favor of White dominance and supremacy in New Orleans and beyond.

This continual insurgency forced Washington D.C. leadership and the president, then former Union general turned president Ulysses S. Grant to grow weary of bringing the South back into the Union. The raids were so customary, the killings so regular, the lynchings so public, the marauding and raping so persistent that the whole of the United States was forced, under the threat of another Civil War, to give the South its autonomy to do with its colored people whatever they saw fit. The next president of the United States of America recalled the Union army and federal soldiers from the Deep South and this vacuum of power was seen as a win for the Klan, the Knights of the White Camellia, and the White League who had ravaged the Southern horizon with a ferocity and impunity never seen before in American history.

The Confederates States of America may have lost the Civil War but it won the right and unchallenged privilege to perpetrate violence on innocent people of color for the next one hundred years. It won American culture, legislation, Senate seats, House representatives, Black Laws and Black Codes, and it won the South back for the White man.

Polycarp Constant Lecorgne helped it all succeed.

Edward Ball shuns his great-great-grandfather’s behavior and deeds but sees them as acceptable within their time because white supremacy was the standard then, and Edward may even argue that it is still the standard in society today, unfortunately.

He challenges the notion that these racist warmongerers were all bad people. Most of the persons dawning these white or red robes to maraud weren’t bad people as they understood the word bad. They were respectable lawyers, judges, former military men, politicians, tradesmen, carpenters, and yes, ministers. Their wives were great whites or Grand Blancs, who instructed slaves about the matters of the home, knitted white and red hoods for their husband’s night raids, and wielded pistols in ensuing riots, killing, and marauding alongside their loved ones.

What allowed for such regular and benign societies to coexist with such damned practices was the inconspicuous inception of Whiteness and later the all-too conspicuous legalization of Whiteness engrained into Southern law.

Edward Ball puts it this way:

“The encirclement (of White Supremacy) is complete. Race quarantine becomes the custom in all the land. White Supremacy is acclaimed in habit, in thought, and in law.”

We might ask why Mr. Ball ventures into his macabre family history and he may say that it is for atonement, perhaps. One cannot atone for what their ancestors did but one can, out of willful and collective responsibility seek to understand why these things happened then and later seek out the remaining family members of the victims of White Supremacy to reconcile the two worlds.

He does that and the relationships developed between the children of White Marauders mixing and relating with the children of former slaves and Creoles of color is beautiful. The affection, the tenderheartedness, the friendliness, and fervent need to keep history alive from both sides without an inkling of ignorance regarding who did what to who and when and where is redemptive.

It is cathartic.

Knowing that a white man of Klan ancestry is openly discussing his family history and contently condemning it, understanding the rise and prevalence of supremacy within our history is in and of itself a relief.

Too often, as Ball admits, willful blindness, that on the part of our white friends, keeps them from understanding just how much White Supremacy and Whiteness have shaped our western world and how it still does.

Books like these, in autobiographical prose, are tantamount in assisting modern readers and those who will follow us in time to better understand just how much work is still needed to reverse this damnable ideology of Whiteness within Western thought, habit, culture, geography, community, faith, law, policing, etc.

We are truly the ‘chronicle and choices of our predecessors’ by birth but we can work from there, with knowledge, compassion, empathy, and grace, to reverse our disgraceful past and trade it in for a graceful present and future between us and our neighbors who descend either from racist marauders or their innocent victims.

Thank you, Mr. Ball, for taking the time and enduring the pain of the past, your family’s past, and its disastrous and murderous ramifications on the world, to bring us this novel and the hope that looking into the past, no matter how grave and sinful it can be, it can lead us away from the darkness of our past toward the light of reconciliation and communal reparation in the now.

One novel on the life of a klansman in the family down.

Only 100 million more or so to go.”

I love Edward Ball’s revelatory comment on how so many of us have been brainwashed to think that we are disconnected from the history that precedes us. As if everything that happened before our birth is only pertinent and worth discussing if it contains our parents, and at times, circumstances allowing, our grandparents. 

I am my own man.

I am my own woman.

Some say. But seldom are we humble enough to admit that we are connected to a long line of blessings and curses, triumph and failures, acts of honor, and acts of sinister terrorism. 

I believe pride thwarts our attempts at looking back because it is our entire identity is established on the idea of the “I” as many Americans and Canadians claim that it is, then it shatters when we open ourselves up to the “we” or “us” of yesteryear. Because then we have to start grappling with what was it that our ancestors did right that got us to where we are today and what was it that they did wrong and got away with that afforded us the luxury we have today? 

These things are heart-wrenching for our white brothers and sisters who have never looked far back enough to determine that although great-great granddad was a veteran, perhaps I should’ve known that he was the Nazi of his day fighting for his right to keep black Americans in bondage. 

No one wants to think of great-great granddad as a klansman but that’s what he was and his hatred might’ve passed down the family line, overtly at first and covertly in the last generation or so. 

The way you look at a particular group of people or women or immigrants may not be your own idea about them at all but something heinous that has been in your family for generations. But you’re blind to that continual lingering cancer because you refuse to look at the collection of decisions that made you who you are today. 

You must understand that the decisions you make today will affect your family in the future, for good or bad, for poverty or wealth. They can and will have a hand in their success and demise, of course, but your decisions today will either catapult them years ahead by the time they’re ready to launch or it’ll stymie their start and dampen their desire for success, for a time. 

And you are the product of your family line. 

“The cult of the individual that dominates modern minds, the ideology of the ‘I,’ prevents most of us from seeing ourselves as products of the chronicle and choices of our predecessors.” – Edward Ball

We are the chronicle and choices of our predecessors. 

Who were your predecessors?

Currently Reading

“Hauntingly beautiful.” –The New York Times

Featured Image by Joanna Kosinska.

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