What can we learn about racism in 2020 by studying the origins of the Ku-Klux Klan? Edward Ball answers that question with his new book, Life of a Klansman: A Family History in White Supremacy.
Ball, who is a direct descendant of 19th century Louisiana slaveowner-turned-Klansman Constant Lecorgne, tells us right out of the gate that, statistically, about half of all white Americans have a Klansman in their family tree (including Donald Trump). There is nothing inherently shameful about that fact- you have no control over your bloodline, after all- but acknowledging that fact is a rarity. Ball not only acknowledges it but wrestles with it, laying out the story of “our Klansman” in vivid detail.
He leaves no stone unturned, starting the story decades before Lecorgne’s birth, going to painful lengths to give us as much context for the Klansman’s life as possible. Ball could be an anthropologist for the level of detail he goes into for everything even tangentially related to Lecorgne: he dedicates several pages just to describing the music popular among Black slaves in Lecorgne’s childhood neighborhood. It’s all important, because it all informs how Lecorgne came to develop his worldviews.
Ball doesn’t assume that readers will have any clear understanding of American history, and is careful to lay out even the most elementary of facts: “The Confederate States was the slave nation that died on the birthing table during the Civil War. The South calls the fight ‘the war between the states,’ or ‘the lost cause.’ It ended in 1865.” In fact, well over a hundred pages are spent on Lecorgne’s experiences in the Civil War, years before the Klan ever formed. Ball tries to show empathy for the rebels, tries to see them as a product of their time, but the effect is never quite achieved. The argument that we can’t judge people for waging war to uphold slavery because they were “a product of their time” just doesn’t hold water when half the country had turned against the institution of slavery, and about half the world had already abolished the practice.
There’s a thin line between empathy and sympathy for these white supremacists, though, and Ball does an admirable job of toeing it. At one point, he describes an arrest of Lecorgne on charges of treason:
“Constant stands accused. If he hangs for it, I will not have the pleasure of telling his story. He is a fighter for whiteness. Which he knows, and we all know, is not treason at all.”
If you’re not careful, you may read that as a defense of Lecorgne’s white supremacist views, but Ball’s point is that the uncomfortable truth is that this nation was built on white supremacy. Every twenty pages or so, amid dense history, Ball injects just a sentence or two slyly comparing “then” to “now.” He describes minstrel shows, featuring white performers in blackface, then remarks, “It is a performance of blackness that whites want, not the real life of being Black. They still want it, I think.” The effect of these interjections is profound.
The Ku-Klux Klan was formed during Reconstruction, the days following the Civil War. When Ball wrote Life of a Klansman, he couldn’t have imagined just how pertinent his book would be in the moment of its release. The similarities between the summer of 2020 and the years of Reconstruction are remarkable, right down to the Klan’s suppression of Black voters, and allegations of electoral fraud when the right-wing party still lost.
In fact, the Ku-Klux’s origin is eerily similar to that of many of today’s militia movements: angry at “interference” by the federal government in their lives, white men band together and stockpile weapons (often illegally procured) to violently stand up to their tormenters. By that description, you may be hard-pressed to tell whether I’m talking about the KKK or the Three Percenters (or Proud Boys, or Boogaloo). The Klan eventually realized that terrorizing Blacks wasn’t enough- they needed to attack the “race traitors” to make a difference. Compare that to the 17-year old self-described militia member who allegedly used an illegally owned AR-15 to kill two white members of an anti-racism protest.
Above all else, as its name suggests, this book is a biography of one member of the Ku-Klux Klan. But it also serves as a fairly comprehensive history of white supremacy in 19th century America, and, occasionally, a memoir of Ball’s own reckoning with his lineage. Life of a Klansman is an important read for anyone who doesn’t mind slogging through some dense history to better understand our current moment.