History, and Review, in Black and White ; Edward Ball's Latest Book Raises the Question, 'Who Should Tell Black Family History?'

By French, Mary Ann | The Christian Science Monitor, October 11, 2001 | Go to article overview

History, and Review, in Black and White ; Edward Ball's Latest Book Raises the Question, 'Who Should Tell Black Family History?'


French, Mary Ann, The Christian Science Monitor


It's a shame that Edwina Harleston Whitlock - whose story this is - did not write this book.

There! I've said it, and broken some of the most mannered rules of our racially dichotomous society.

I'm sharing publicly, and in mixed company, what I imagine will be a fairly common reaction among black readers of "The Sweet Hell Inside: A Family History," by Edward Ball. Tongues will be clucked, and teeth sucked. But the displeasure is likely to be noted quietly, and mainly to one another.

White readers, on the other hand, may turn these pages with pride at the thought that someone has invested himself so fully and intimately in black history. They may receive this book as enthusiastically as they did the first biography Ball sketched of his extended clan, "Slaves in the Family." That book reached back to colonial times. It intertwined triumphant tales from his family's beginnings as Southern land barons with more sorrowful stories about the 4,000 enslaved Africans and their descendants who cultivated rice on a score of South Carolina plantations that Ball's ancestors owned.

"Slaves" won the National Book Award in 1998 and was rightly celebrated for bringing figures from both sides of history's color line to life.

Ball's new book, "The Sweet Hell Inside," focuses solely on a miscegenated black family whose white roots he traces back to the 17th century to link with his own.

This branch of the Harleston family - who Ball claims were representative of Charleston's "colored elite" - began in the 19th century by way of a common-law union between a white planter and an enslaved woman that yielded eight children.

After Emancipation, one of those children opened a funeral parlor that boomed in Charleston's segregated market and formed the basis of the family fortune. The family also included an artist who was accepted at Harvard in 1905, but chose instead to study portraiture at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston; a classically trained composer who played sedate concertos in the conservatories of London and hot jazz in the clubs of Paris; and an early "power couple" who ran the Jenkins Orphanage, whose wards included musicians who became key players in the evolution of jazz.

Victims of their own success, the family foundered when its patriarch died, and none of his advantaged children was enthusiastic about running the funeral business he left behind.

Edwina Harleston Whitlock, born to the next generation, was a young girl when the family began to unravel. A newly found distant cousin, she generously presented Edward Ball with the stained folders full of photos and piles of old correspondence, scrapbooks, diaries, and notebooks - some 2,000 items in all - on which he based this book. …

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