The National Book Award-winning author of Slaves in the Family returns with the story of his great-grandfather, a Louisiana carpenter who took up the cause of fanatical racism during the years after the Civil War, joining the Ku Klux Klan and participating in the slaughter of hundreds of Black people.
Mr. Ball artfully reanimates ideas that attempted to justify slavery and, later, black subjugation ... Mr. Ball also connects historical New Orleans with the present moment, as when he interviews the descendants of black and Creole families who were victimized by White League violence, showing how past trauma lives on ... Mr. Ball sets this section of the book apart. It’s a risky but effective narrative gambit, revealing that while Mr. Ball may share the history of the people he is interviewing, the impact of that shared history is both infinitely varied and painfully particular ... Life of a Klansman does just that; it helps the reader to understand that uncomfortable historical legacies must be faced and confronted. Though Mr. Ball shies away from prescriptiveness ... His prose is almost never cloying or superficial; this is not a handwringing apology of the sort one sometimes reads in social-media confessionals. Mr. Ball is movingly philosophical about what responsibility his generation holds for the sins of its fathers. He veers away from sentimentality ... Mr. Ball’s examination of the life of his family’s Klansman reminds us that there’s much more work to be done.
... 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 ... Because he has few documents, Ball indulges in a lot of surmises and speculations, perhaps a bit too many for my taste ... Lecorgne was a minor player in this movement. But for that reason his tale is valuable, both for understanding his times and for understanding our own; he allows us a glimpse of who becomes one of the mass of followers of racist movements, and why ... The interconnected strands of race and history give Ball’s entrancing stories a Faulknerian resonance. In Ball’s retelling of his family saga, the sins and stains of the past are still very much with us, not something we can dismiss by blaming them on misguided ancestors who died long ago.
... a book designed to discomfort its reader ... it’s disorienting when Ball slips in and out of a stream of consciousness that seems to imagine the thoughts of his racist ancestors in a sympathetic way...All of this could seem, to the impatient reader, like an effort to empathize with the racist mind ... Ball refuses to allow his readers that distance. He writes of Lecorgne as despicable but fully human, forcing the reader to view the world through the long-dead man’s little round-framed spectacles. All of which makes Ball’s eventual point so much more powerful ... the second half of the book focuses largely on the consequences of his ancestors’ actions, and the people affected. These are not cursory mentions: Ball creates detailed and loving portraits of people such as Janel Santiago Marsalis, who is initially wary of Ball in New Orleans. She’s a Creole artist who paints her own ancestors. Some of her family died at the hands of Lecorgne’s fellow Klansmen. Through her art and in the book she, as Tulane’s students might hope, lifts Black voices mightily.