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Life of a Klansman

A Family History in White Supremacy

Edward Ball

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Life of a Klansman Download image

ISBN10: 0374186324
ISBN13: 9780374186326


416 Pages



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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 Klan, 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.


Praise for Life of a Klansman

“Taking the reader along with him on a journey of discovery as he teases out facts, [Edward Ball] engages in speculation and shares his emotions about the sad saga of Constant Lecorgne, an unsuccessful carpenter and embittered racist who was a great-great-grandfather on his mother’s side. The result is 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 . . . Lecorgne was a minor player . . . 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."—Walter Isaacson, The New York Times Book Review

“Ball’s direct but nimble prose cuts the contours of Constant Lecorgne’s life and grapples simultaneously with the coherent outline and structure that whiteness imposes . . . Though he claims Life of a Klansman is an investigation of his matrilineal ancestor, Ball has engineered another kind of coup: a public reckoning with white supremacy . . . Ball’s book is about the postbellum US and the US in 2020; it’s looking both directions at once.”—Walton Muyumba, The Boston Globe

"Provocative and painful . . . What emerges is a harrowing reckoning with one family's past, as well as a nation's past in miniature."—Susan Larson, The Times-Picayune/The New Orleans Advocate

“Captivating . . . An intimate origin story of the white-supremacist movement . . . [Edward Ball] reconstructs his ancestor’s world and moral insight in a work of novelistic expansiveness . . . Ball refuses to ‘disown’ the past, believing it crucial for white Americans to acknowledge that ‘marauders like Constant are our people, and they fight for us.’ Accordingly, he approaches his ancestor’s story with shame, but also sympathy and imagination.”—Julian Lucas, Harper's

"In writing a microhistory about [his great-great-grandfather], [Ball] builds a psychological portrait of white supremacy, which then radiates outward and across time, to explain the motives and historical background behind racist violence . . . Ball offers a particularly piercing psychoanalytic reading of the present, even though his subject is the past."—Josephine Livingstone, The New Republic

"Ball tells his story with curiosity, disgust, and a sweeping lamp of novelistic imagination, making his tale all the chillier for being so intimate, so intensely realized . . . This is an important work of America’s collective history—one whose ghosts are most undead."John Freeman, Literary Hub

"Spanning most of the 19th century, Life of a Klansman is a nuanced case study of one cog within a machine of terrorism and oppression . . . [a] nuanced biography . . . In flexing his imagination, Ball creates a dynamic space for challenging reconciliation, breaking from the narrative periodically to reflect with empathy for family members acting in ways he abhors, yet never absolving them."Shelf Awareness (starred review)

"There is no other writer of nonfiction about race writing today who has taken us deeper into our greatest national and familial dilemma than Edward Ball. Life of a Klansman is a deeply personal history, a brave work, and a lodestar for how we have arrived at yet another reckoning about white supremacy. Ball demonstrates here, for all who wish to try, just how to face, narrate, and understand our past even when we find ancestors and stories we might wish away. In his work, he allows for no looking away, and he does so in lyrical prose."—David W. Blight, Sterling Professor of History at Yale University and Pulitzer Prize–winning author of Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom

"In this compelling narrative of the life of a klansman, Edward Ball reckons with the history of whiteness that has shaped the U.S. and which is his personal inheritance. Ball confronts the violence and hatred at the foundation of white authority and privilege by recounting his great-great-grandfather’s worldview and acts of brutality. It is easy to recoil from the ugliness documented in these pages; much more difficult is the task of acknowledging that murder and terror are the bedrock of the nation. Life of A Klansman is a must-read, now more than ever."Saidiya Hartman, professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University and author of Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments

“If you are a white American, Edward Ball calculates, the odds that you have a Klansman in your family tree are one in two. In this singular work of imaginative reconstruction, Ball brings his own family's Klansman out of the closet and into the light. With a detective’s tenacity, Life of a Klansman personalizes the terror of white supremacy as it builds toward a crescendo that sears the soul.”Nancy MacLean, William H. Chafe Distinguished Professor at Duke University and author of Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America and Behind the Mask of Chivalry: The Making of the Second Ku Klux Klan

"Edward Ball’s fascinating Life of A Klansman escapes genres. His art combines imagination and history to tell the story of the sometimes brutal, often mundane, life of his ancestor, a New Orleans carpenter who became 'our klansman.' Delicately balancing empathy and disgust, he examines the chokehold whiteness and white supremacy have fastened on public memory."—Richard White, Margaret Byrne Professor of American History at Stanford University and author of The Republic for Which It Stands

"[A] resonant tale . . . [and] a self-searching meditation . . . An illuminating contribution to the literature of race and racism in America."Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

"A violent legacy stirs a deep meditation on the nature of racism in this anguished study of Civil War–era New Orleans . . . [Edward Ball] vividly reconstructs the mindset that propelled [his great-great-grandfather]—a resentful, working-class striver nostalgic for his family’s formerly privileged position atop New Orleans’ complex racial hierarchy—into racist activism . . . The result is a clear-eyed work of historical reclamation and an intimate, self-lacerating take on memory and collective responsibility."Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“The author of the National Book Award–winning Slaves in the Family returns with a powerful, horrifying history of a family and a nation . . . Ball assembles a compelling, nuanced story . . . [Life of a Klansman] 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.”—Margaret Quamme, Booklist (starred review)

Reviews from Goodreads


Read an Excerpt


The middle of the week is good for an attack, for the surprise. It is March 4, 1873, in the city of New Orleans, a Tuesday night. About 9:00 p.m., a man called Polycarp Constant Lecorgne emerges from his house by the levee of the Mississippi...

About the author

Edward Ball

Edward Ball's previous books include 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.

Nina Subin

Edward Ball