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.
Life of a Klansman implicitly asks how White Americans can meaningfully confront their relationship to enduring white supremacy, whether they are directly tied to enslavers or terrorists, as Ball is, or linked less detectably by reaping the inescapable benefits of a deeply embedded racial privilege that is slavery’s lasting consequence ... Ball succeeds in the delicate task of conveying empathy for Lecorgne while expressing his utter repulsion ... Ball uses...[a] paraphrasing approach inventively to enter the minds of various White figures, though at times he transitions confusingly between these voices and his own historical narration. The book’s most compelling character is not Lecorgne but New Orleans itself, culturally and racially layered ... Throughout, he writes to a White audience, using the pronoun 'we' ... While Ball may be well-intentioned in using this language to challenge those who might identify with his burdened past, because he does not explicitly acknowledge this audience selection, he effectively disregards readers of color, as though they presumably wouldn’t choose to engage the history of White terrorism or a White writer who grapples with his relation to it ... Ball doesn’t ultimately connect Lecorgne and the systemic racism he embodies with contemporary white supremacy ... Life of a Klansman is valuable as a self-searching profile of ancestral atrocity. But without confronting America’s present-day white-supremacist severities, Ball ultimately lands softly on the bloody terrain.