A trenchant exploration of a family's legacy of white supremacy from the National Book Award–winner Edward Ball
Eighty million: this figure, in Edward Ball's estimation, represents the number of Americans with at least one ancestor in the Ku Klux Klan. Yet the stories of these Klansmen—our national Klansmen—remain largely untold. They are white skeletons mouldering in family closets, in the North as well as the South.
Now, in this pioneering and punctiliously researched microhistory, the National Book Award–winner Ball (Slaves in the Family) turns his attention back to the subject that brought him to national fame: the mechanisms of white supremacy in America, as understood through the lives of his own ancestors. Life of a Klansman is the story of Polycarp Constant Lecorgne, a carpenter from New Orleans, a member of the White League, a guerilla fighter for the Klan, and the author's great-great-grandfather. Ball takes readers back to a time when Louisiana was on the ragged frontier of Napoleon's former empire—a place where racial lines were occasionally blurred, and where Constant's father Yves even rented his house from a freewoman of color. Life of a Klansman traces Louisiana's tortured racial history, from the Creole caste system to the American Civil War to Reconstruction, when petits blancs like Constant violently rejected what they perceived as an imposed threat to the hierarchy of white and black.
From street battles with the Metropolitan Police to conversations in his aunt's kitchen, Ball examines how the "Ku-Klux" (in his family's parlance) has waxed and waned and waxed again in the century and a half since America's race war supposedly ended at Appomattox. The result is a forceful argument for a national reckoning, one in which family lore is upturned and the shameful legacies of the Klansmen are disinterred. “Why retrieve from obscurity this bitter and bloody Klan story?" Ball writes. "There is a personal motive, and that is that it bothers me. Constant Lecorgne was not a thoughtful man—he could write an invoice for his carpentry work, but that's all—and he did not develop the idea of white entitlement that still circulates, like an odorless gas in the ductwork, in 2019. But god knows he put steel in that process, and he damaged the lives of thousands. To put it in a religious frame, when you find a body, as I have, it needs to be waked."