A Confession

One of the stories passed down in my family dealt with a Black woman purportedly owned by someone on my mother’s side who lived in Maryland. As my mother told the story to me, the woman was old and liked to drink alcohol. Embedded in the account I heard was a trace of amusement. Apparently the family had found the elderly slave woman’s drinking habits funny.

Over the years, I have repeated that story to acquaintances, usually in the context of a discussion of the horrendous mistreatment Black people received for hundreds of years at the hands of White people, who considered them less than human and, therefore, appropriate property to own and abuse as they saw fit. Reflecting on those moments, I think I somehow thought casually injecting my family story into the conversation and admitting my complicity in the awful practice of slavery would somehow absolve me from the condemnation commonly heaped on racists and the ancestors of racists in today’s America. But I now realize my hands won’t ever be clean no matter how many times I own up to that historical fact.

I recently re-read Edward Ball’s 1998 award winning non-fiction book, Slaves in the Family. Ball traced his family’s slave owning roots all the way back to the earliest Ball to begin amassing property and slaves in South Carolina. He heads out in search of any descendants of those early Balls who might be able to help him recover the truth of his family’s practices way back when. He discovers, fairly early in the process, that some of the Ball plantation masters fathered children with slave women, making his family, at least in some strands, bi-racial. That gives him three avenues to explore–White ancestors, bi-racial ancestors, and ancestors of people once owned by his family.

For the most part, his White relatives excuse themselves and their ancestors by clinging to the specious argument that we shouldn’t condemn slave sellers and owners because their actions were consistent with the values of the time in which they lived. After some strenuous searching, he hears a different story from the other two groups–stories of Black families being separated and sold away from each other; stories of unbelievable cruelty meted out to Black men, women and children by overseers and sometimes his own descendants to keep their “property” in line; and, yes, stories of Black women, sometimes barely girls, who were raped and assaulted by White males from the big house who slipped into the shabby slave quarters in the dark of night.

As the weight of Ball’s stories bore down on me, I gradually came to see that admitting my family may have once owned slaves did nothing to remove the horrific reality those Black people endured for hundreds of years in this country, and it certainly didn’t absolve me of complicity in a system endorsed by White Americans for so terribly long. It gave me a new appreciation for the reparations movement still simmering in parts of this country (not that there’s any amount of money that could amend even a sliver of the damage done and still being done to Black people here in the land of the free and the home of the brave.)

I’m not sure what I can do to make amends for my family’s part in the unrighteous subjugation of Black people. But I can confess my inherited guilt and complicity and commit myself to working for an America and a world where no human being is ever treated as less than any other. I know that’s not much, but I hope it’s at least a start.



  1. Dustin Son · November 6, 2015


    You are a great writer and I really enjoy reading your posts.

    I think you’ve already “made ammends” (tenfold!) by educating America’s youth for so many years.
    You were the best college professor I’ve ever had, and I happen to know lots of other people who feel the same way.
    It’s hard to make ammeds for something when you didnt have a hand in the original decision.

    Sometimes in families, I think we can get “lumped into” other family members’ indiscretions even though we’ve done absolutely nothing wrong. Sometimes I feel like we’re left to “deal with it” for some reason and I dont like that.

    Just because our ancestors (or our parents!) have made unfavorable decisions in their life doesnt mean we should feel responsible or that we should have to “make it right”. A wise person once told me “We could spend our whole lives trying to do that – and who measures if we’re successful?”

    I guess my message is “Don’t beat yourself up too badly about this.”
    You didnt do it. You didnt make it happen – You are simply related to people who did.
    This is not a “guilty by association” situation in my opinion.

    You are a good person who does good things for people. I’ve been part of it, so I can say that with certainty.
    Hope all is well and Happy Holidays
    (I cant believe its November already)



    • Mark Kelley · November 6, 2015

      Thanks much for the kind and consoling words. I will always remember your honest, sincere, searching presence in my classes. And you obviously continue to brighten the world wherever you are. Thanks for finding time to check out the blog. I feel a real connection to those who read and especially those who respond. I have always believed we’re all in this thing together…your words and continuing friendship make me know I was right. Best, Mark


  2. Marty · November 6, 2015

    Thank you.


  3. Judy Williams · November 10, 2015

    The “sins of the father” is, indeed, a thorny issue. No one welcomes the discovery that egregious wrongs have been committed at the hand of a family member. The whole family unit comes under scrutiny, consciously or unconsciously, when that has happened. Questions at to how such a thing could happen arise and at their heart lies the assumption that there is something inherently wrong or even evil with such a family that it could have produced people who made such choices. I do believe that owning up to such past wrongs within one’s family brings those wrongs to light in a way that causes more societal reflection than when such doings are kept a secret. Secrets are easy to ignore–after all, we’re unaware of them unless we are the secret holders. Good job keeping the dialogue going on such an important topic. Judy


    • Mark Kelley · November 10, 2015

      Well said, Judy. Thank you for adding your good thoughts to my halting efforts to deal morally and responsibly with this painful reality. We miss you guys already, and Marty just left this morning. Best to you and Dana and your families. MK


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