Looking at the family tree
While not intended as a sequel to his National Book Award-winning volume Slaves in the Family, Edward Ball's latest work, The Sweet Hell Inside, takes a look at many of the same themes: race, class, prejudice and sex. Beginning with the razor-sharp memories of 84-year-old Edwina Harleston Whitlock, Ball sets out to uncover the legacy of the Harlestons, an African-American clan whose blood ties he shares. Whitlock, a nonwhite descendant of the Balls, provided the author with documents that convinced him they were cousins as a result of the interracial coupling so common during the slavery and Reconstruction eras. The book opens with a detailed look at William Harleston, the owner of a plantation near Charleston, South Carolina, that housed about 60 slaves, including Kate Wilson, who became the mother of his children. The pair maintained a forbidden sexual relationship for 35 years, causing Harleston to be shunned by friends and family alike.
From William and Kate, a prestigious bloodline began, one that would produce a family of African Americans unwilling to submit to the rigid demands of Jim Crow and segregation laws. The Harlestons endured their share of accomplishments as well as tragedies, but many members of the clan went on to succeed in business, civic affairs and the arts. Ball tells each of their triumphant stories with an exquisite sense of detail and insight.
Of the many tales told here, none are as fascinating as those of Harleston descendants Ella and Teddy. Ella, ravished by a prominent minister, later teamed with him to mold a small army of homeless black children into first-rate entertainers who took Broadway and Europe by storm. Her brother Teddy struggled to become an artist in Harlem, where he found himself surrounded by the high energy of the black creative world. Eventually, his efforts paid off, and he landed lucrative commissions, including a prize catch a request to paint noted industrialist Pierre DuPont.
These are just two of the many narratives Ball recounts with care and style in a wonderfully crafted volume that offers an in-depth look at black culture and history. In many respects, The Sweet Hell Inside is an even better book than Ball's first, and that is quite a feat in itself.