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BOOK REVIEW

Tracing hooded history in ‘Life of a Klansman’

Polycarp Constant Lecorgne, subject of "Life of a Klansman," by Lecorgne's great-great-great grandson Edward Ball.
Polycarp Constant Lecorgne, subject of "Life of a Klansman," by Lecorgne's great-great-great grandson Edward Ball.Private collection

Early in his sixth book, “Life of a Klansman,” Edward Ball describes a credo that white Creoles in New Orleans live by: On lave son linge sale en famille (wash your dirty laundry inside the family). Ball’s “Klansman” narrates the life of his Creole ancestor, his great-great-great grandfather Polycarp Constant Lecorgne. In documenting his forefather’s Ku Klux Klan membership, not only does Ball break a Creole code, he also dares document how whiteness and white supremacy function in American life. For Ball, whiteness, in its “tribal nature,” its normal, permanent, ubiquity in our lives, often masks white supremacy’s operation, not a “deformation” of tribal thought, “but a kind of thought itself.”

Constant, as he became known, was born in 1832 in New Orleans to Yves Le Corgne and Marguerite Zeringue. Though Yves had deserted the French Navy upon arrival in New Orleans in 1810, he still managed to marry into Marguerite’s wealthy, slave-owning, grands blancs (big whites), family. Growing up in the French Quarter among the well-heeled, Constant appears destined to inherit social position, access to land, and slaves.

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Constant was not the eldest son nor a favored child. And in adulthood, though he and his wife, Gabrielle, owned several slaves and a Creole cottage in the Quarter, Constant never developed the political or business acumen displayed by his older and younger brothers, Yves of God and Joseph, respectively. Unlike his younger sister, Eliza, who becomes a schoolteacher, Constant did not earn professional status. He was a carpenter, “a mediocre man, like a middling salary worker of today.”

Ball cannot know Constant’s mind intimately. However, employing Saidiya Hartman’s technique, “critical fabulation,” allows him creative liberties in constructing Constant’s life and his milieu. When gaps emerge in psychology, motive, or context, the author relies on the vast historical, literary, and artistic archives (family papers, public records, periodicals, photographs, and scholarship) about 19th-century white New Orleanian experience to speculate artistically about his ancestors.

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Ball suspects, for example, that Constant’s resentments about social rank and racial order underwrite his petitioning for a captaincy in the Louisiana Militia (eventually, he joins the Fourteenth Infantry of Louisiana) just after the beginning of the Civil War. In 1861, Constant was 29 years old and eager to demonstrate his valor in the Confederate cause to ensure slavery’s continuance and promulgate white supremacy.

Alexander Stephens, the vice president of the Confederate States of America, argued that The South’s secession from the United States rested “upon the great truth, that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery — subordination to the superior race — is his natural normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.” Coming of age in the 1850s, Constant would have heard versions of Stephens’s political theory throughout class stratified white New Orleans. Ball also peppers early sections of “Klansman” with assertions from men like Samuel Morton and Samuel Cartwright, pseudo-scientists whose taxonomies and methodologies justified claims of Black inferiority. Morton and Cartwright circulated their ideas in books and quarterly magazines that slave-owning, literate families like the Lecorgnes would have read.

Commitment to white supremacy, however, didn’t keep Constant from humiliating himself while in uniform. He was demoted, forced to resign, and blacklisted from rejoining Confederate forces. Under a nom de guerre, “Terrance Lecorgne,” Constant returned to the fighting with Louisiana’s Eighteenth Infantry. “A pattern is visible. Through friends and family, Constant finds his way into a nice position, one with authority — a captain or lieutenant, as a recruitment officer or sheriff’s deputy. But his superiors find a man different for the one they thought they had in hand,” writes Ball.

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At war’s end, Constant returned to New Orleans as a petit blanc (a little white), the Confederacy’s defeat amplifying his wartime personal failures. But nothing ignited the fury of white Southerners more than watching newly emancipated Blacks reveling in liberty and the promise of enfranchisement. The violent rejection of Reconstruction was immediate and Constant was prepared to act as “an agent of racist terror.”

Stoked by militias like the Knights of the White Camellia and the White League, postbellum New Orleans is a simmering racist hot war. Militia members use their jobs in the municipality, in fire companies, and the police department to hide in plain sight. A member of the Home Hook & Ladder fire company, Constant likely participated in the 1866 New Orleans Riot, when white police and firemen staged an elaborate attack on the Mechanics Institute (then home of the Louisiana State House) where Black citizens marched in support of delegates convened to deliberate and ratify the state’s Reconstruction constitution. The marauders killed over 200 people, mostly Black citizens. It was a massacre in defense of the white tribe, in defense of the kuklos (the circle), from Greek, or the “ku-klux,” from blood-thirsty American English.

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In 1873, Constant and his crew, attempting a coup d’etat, took over a Metropolitan Police building. They failed, were arrested, and charged with treason. “If he hangs for it,” Ball explains, “I will not have the pleasure of telling his story. He is a fighter for whiteness. Which he knows, and we know, is not treason at all.” 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 on “waking life.”

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. “This is a story of race violence and terror that is Janus-faced. It is both exceptional and normal. It is aberrant in its cruel extreme. And yet it is typical, because the wider community tacitly supports it.” Ball’s book is about the postbellum US and the US in 2020; it’s looking both directions at once.

LIFE OF A KLANSMAN: A Family History in White Supremacy

By Edward Ball

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 416 pp., $28

An essayist and critic, Walton Muyumba is also the author of “The Shadow and the Act: Black Intellectual Practice, Jazz Improvisation, and Philosophical Pragmatism.”