"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." —Walter Isaacson, The New York Times Book Review
One of The New York Times' thirteen books to watch for in August | One of The Washington Post's ten books to read in August | A Literary Hub best book of the summer| One of Kirkus Reviews' sixteen best books to read in August
The life and times of a militant white supremacist, written by one of his offspring, National Book Award–winner Edward Ball
Life of a Klansman tells the story of a warrior in the Ku Klux Klan, a carpenter in Louisiana who took up the cause of fanatical racism during the years after the Civil War. Edward Ball, a descendant of the Klansman, paints a portrait of his family’s anti-black militant that is part history, part memoir rich in personal detail.
Sifting through family lore about “our Klansman” as well as public and private records, Ball reconstructs the story of his great-great grandfather, Constant Lecorgne. A white French Creole, father of five, and working class ship carpenter, Lecorgne had a career in white terror of notable and bloody completeness: massacres, night riding, masked marches, street rampages—all part of a tireless effort that he and other Klansmen made to restore white power when it was threatened by the emancipation of four million enslaved African Americans. To offer a non-white view of the Ku-klux, Ball seeks out descendants of African Americans who were once victimized by “our Klansman” and his comrades, and shares their stories.
For whites, to have a Klansman in the family tree is no rare thing: Demographic estimates suggest that fifty percent of whites in the United States have at least one ancestor who belonged to the Ku Klux Klan at some point in its history. That is, one-half of white Americans could write a Klan family memoir, if they wished.
In an era when racist ideology and violence are again loose in the public square, Life of a Klansman offers a personal origin story of white supremacy. Ball’s family memoir traces the vines that have grown from militant roots in the Old South into the bitter fruit of the present, when whiteness is again a cause that can veer into hate and domestic terror.
A violent legacy stirs a deep meditation on the nature of racism in this anguished study of Civil War era New Orleans. Ball follows up on his National Book Award winning Slaves in the Family with an investigation of his great-great-grandfather Polycarp Constant Lecorgne, a carpenter, Confederate soldier, and militant in the White League a New Orleans militia like the Ku Klux Klan who participated in at least one bloody street insurrection against Louisiana's Reconstruction government and its antiracist policies. Ball's account of the reign of terror that reestablished white supremacy in Louisiana after the abolition of slavery is harrowing, as white gangs murdered hundreds of black voters and political leaders and white Republicans in the state. He also vividly reconstructs the mindset that propelled Lecorgne a resentful, working-class striver nostalgic for his family's formerly privileged position atop New Orleans' complex racial hierarchy into racist activism. And he analyzes his ancestor as an exemplar of an ideological "whiteness" born of economic interest, racial pseudoscience, and unconscious prejudices that implicates white people today, "a murderous actor on behalf of his family... a fighter for our gain, for my benefit." The result is a clear-eyed work of historical reclamation and an intimate, self-lacerating take on memory and collective responsibility.