History, and review, in black and white

Edward Ball's latest book raises the question, 'Who should tell black family history?'

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.

Ball also made ample use of Whitlock's memories. So much so, in fact, that "Sweet Hell" seems to be largely her narrative, with much of it told in her voice. Yet her name appears in much smaller type under Ball's on the cover, and she doesn't appear to hold any copyright.

Whitlock, who is now in her eighties, studied journalism as a graduate student at Northwestern University in the 1930s. She worked as a writer, editor, and publisher at a newspaper owned by her husband in Gary, Ind. Presumably, she had the skills and ability to author her family's history.

As "the writer in the family," she had been entrusted with the task and the memorabilia. But life's hurdles monopolized her time, and the years slipped away. Widowed early with four young children to support and a rack of inherited debt, Whitlock retrained herself for a second career as a social worker.

It's impossible to say whether Whitlock's dilemmas were determined by her race or her gender, or both, or whether she fell prey to the same kind of dangers that threaten many Americans at the margins of the middle class.

Undeniable, however, is the general impression among African Americans that white writers such as Ball - who also come from a journalism background - have much better access to the kind of capital that clears the necessary space and time to undertake this type of familial reconstruction and historical preservation writing. And they have a much better chance of finding a major publisher and being widely read.

It's difficult to spell out these thoughts without feeling petty.

It's reminiscent of resentments black folks have felt over white rockers' appropriation of the blues: While it's flattering that our vibe could be so powerfully inspirational, it's painful that white folks couldn't listen to it straight from us. They needed a translator, a mediator; some would say, too, a modulator. But the core of the groove is still recognizable and so, in a certain sense, remains true.

It's encouraging that African American stories from the past are now being incorporated into our nation's history. It's validating and affirming to watch books by whites about blacks winning top awards and becoming bestsellers.

But some sadness will linger until women like Edwina Harleston Whitlock are able to find space and time to write their stories themselves - and white America becomes just as eager to read the original as it is now to scan the translation.

Mary Ann French is a fellow at the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities in Charlottesville who is working on a bi-racial biography of her own family.

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