Book Review: Life of a Klansman

Rating: 5 out of 5.

David W. Blight, Sterling Professor of History at Yale University and Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom “There is no other writer of nonfiction about race writing today who has taken us deeper into our greatest national and familial dilemma than Edward Ball. Life of a Klansman is a deeply personal history, a brave work, and a lodestar for how we have arrived at yet another reckoning about white supremacy. Ball demonstrates here, for all who wish to try, just how to face, narrate, and understand our past even when we find ancestors and stories we might wish away. In his work, he allows for no looking away, and he does so in lyrical prose.”


The Economist, “This is a story of horrors, albeit of a tragically widespread kind . . . The brazenness of these crimes, which included mass murder and treason, and their perpetrators’ more or less complete impunity, cannot fail to shock even readers familiar with the period . . . [Lecorgne] is a looming spectre in a book that is really a portrait of his time.”


Walter Isaacson, The New York Times Book Review. “A haunting tapestry of interwoven stories that inform us not just about our past but about the resentment-bred demons that are all too present in our society today . . . The interconnected strands of race and history give Ball’s entrancing stories a Faulknerian resonance.”


In May 1896, the thoughtful justices of the high court, men who help to clarify national standards for everyone, determine that “repellent intimacy” is a persuasive argument. The law of quarantine is affirmed.

“We think the enforced separation of the races. . .neither abridges the privileges or immunities of the colored man, deprives him of his property without due process of law, nor denies him the equal protection of the laws,” writes associate justice Henry B. Brown in a 7-1 ruling. The main point, says Justice Brown, is that “legislation is powerless to eradicate racial instincts.”

The encirclement is complete. Race quarantine becomes the custom in all the land. White supremacy is acclaimed in habit, in thought and in law.

Edward Ball

The Rundown

“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 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, and 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.

RSDB (Read, Share, Dismiss, or Burn) Verdict:

Read it. Buy it. Re-read it. Share it with a friend. Disseminate it any and everywhere you go. This is history.

There is not a more recommendable book on my shelf than this one. Please read it.

Edward Ball is the author of six books, including The Inventor and the Tycoon, about the birth of moving pictures in California, and Slaves in the Family, an account of his family’s history as slaveholders in South Carolina, which received the National Book Award for Nonfiction. He has taught at Yale University and has been awarded fellowships by the Radcliffe Institute at Harvard and the New York Public Library’s Cullman Center. He is also the recipient of a Public Scholar award from the National Endownment for the Humanities. (Book Cover)


The more images I gathered from the past… the more unlikely it seemed to me that the past actually happened in this or that way, for nothing about it could be called normal: most of it was absurd, and if not absurd, then appalling.

W. G. Sebald, Vertigo

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