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Life of a Klansman
Cover of Life of a Klansman
Life of a Klansman
A Family History in White Supremacy
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"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

A 2020 NPR staff pick | 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 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

A 2020 NPR staff pick | 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.

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About the Author-
  • 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 Endowment for the Humanities.
Reviews-
  • Publisher's Weekly

    Starred review from March 16, 2020
    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.

  • Kirkus

    Starred review from April 1, 2020
    The National Book Award winner continues his investigation of his Southern roots. Where Slaves in the Family (1998) and The Sweet Hell Inside (2001) explored the author's ancestors' relations with the people they enslaved, his latest potent exploration of the past is a study of an even more willful evil. The man whom Ball refers to as "our Klansman" had a "pretty name," or so his mother said: Polycarp Constant Lecorgne. The author, a consummate historical excavator, has known this "family story" since childhood, but it took a long while to face; it's a story that "begins with a woman making notes and talking about family and ends with a lot of people dead in a ditch." Lecorgne was a product of his time, to be sure, but worse than most, drummed out of the Confederate Army for his part in a drunken riot, "allowed to flee, rather than face prison." That shame did not keep him from becoming a committed member of white supremacist groups including the KKK, in which he committed heinous crimes, participating in the murder of freed black citizens and even a siege of a local police station--though, thanks to a politically well-placed brother with the resonant name of Yves of God, he managed not to do hard time. Ball's resonant tale involves many other actors, including a distant cousin who was, a government report noted, "in the habit of shooting at blacks who come near his house" as well as an African American journalist and medical doctor who pressed for civil rights for his people even as Reconstruction faltered. Ball closes with a self-searching meditation: "It is dreadful what this character, my unlikable protagonist, does with himself and others," he writes, but Lecorgne was not alone, and he does not expiate the rest of white America for its ongoing sins. An illuminating contribution to the literature of race and racism in America. (40 b/w illustrations; family tree)

    COPYRIGHT(2020) Kirkus Reviews, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

  • Booklist

    Starred review from June 1, 2020
    The author of the National Book Award-winning Slaves in the Family (1998) returns with a powerful, horrifying history of a family and a nation. Growing up, Ball had heard stories of a great-great-grandfather, Polycarp Constant Lecorgne, who was involved in the Ku-klux in New Orleans after the Civil War. Combing court records, and speculating intelligently where the records show gaps, Ball creates this microhistory, in which a single life carries a society in microcosm. He moves smoothly between the events of this particular life and what was happening on a larger scale, in both New Orleans and the nation as a whole, with particular emphasis on the influence of white supremacy. Out of the few facts available to him?for example, that Lecorgne was dismissed from the Confederate army, that he worked as a ship's carpenter, that several of his children died early, and that the family changed residence frequently, on a downwardly mobile course?Ball assembles a compelling, nuanced story, amply illustrated with family photographs. The book is sober, dominated by a deep sense of shame and outrage, and intentionally disquieting. It won't be a comfortable reading experience, and it's not meant to be, but it's a necessary one.(Reprinted with permission of Booklist, copyright 2020, American Library Association.)

  • Library Journal

    May 1, 2020

    Ball, winner of the National Book Award for Slaves in the Family, returns with a book about his family history. This time, he writes about an ancestor on his mother's side, Polycarp Constant Lecorgne of New Orleans, with whom Ball has long been fascinated due to the family's legend of his association with the Ku Klux Klan. Admitting that he has virtually no sources from Lecorgne himself that explain his thoughts, feelings, or his life in general in his own words, Ball instead turns to threadbare bureaucratic sources and histories of racism in Louisiana and New Orleans and often veers into histories of other families that have seemingly no association with Lecorgne. What results is a book that is almost entirely historical context and speculation on the many reasons an ordinary French Creole white man would join the Klan and other racist organizations and participate in violence against newly empowered blacks after the Civil War (although to what extent he did, Ball can't really say). VERDICT Ball is thoughtful about incorporating new theories of whiteness and the implications for descendants of Klan members, but the lack of solid evidence about Lacorgne may leave readers wanting more. [See Prepub Alert, 12/2/19.]--Kate Stewart, Arizona Historical Soc., Tuscon

    Copyright 2020 Library Journal, LLC Used with permission.

  • Library Journal

    January 1, 2020

    National Book Award winner Ball, who estimates that 80 million Americans have at least one ancestor in the Ku Klux Klan, tells the story of white supremacy in America through the life of his own great-great-grandfather.

    Copyright 2020 Library Journal, LLC Used with permission.

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A Family History in White Supremacy
Edward Ball
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