Ball, Edward 1959-
Ball, Edward 1959-
Born 1959, in Charleston, SC. Education: Attended Brown University.
Writer, journalist; former architecture critic for Village Voice. Has appeared on television programs, including Oprah Winfrey Show and Public Eye; produced The Other History, a documentary, for National Public Radio, 1994.
National Book Award for nonfiction, 1998, for Slaves in the Family.
Slaves in the Family (nonfiction), Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1998.
The Sweet Hell Inside: A Family History, Morrow (New York, NY), 2001.
Peninsula of Lies: A True Story of Mysterious Birth and Taboo Love, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 2004.
The Genetic Strand: Exploring a Family History through DNA, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 2007.
Slaves in the Family was recorded for audio cassette.
Journalist Edward Ball grew up as a part of a well-established white family in South Carolina. He was able to trace his paternal lineage back to a Briton named Elias Ball who arrived in that state in 1698, when it was still an English colony. When he asked his relatives questions about his family's history during the days of Southern slave ownership, according to Time contributor Tamala Edwards, he would always receive the answer: "We were good to our Negroes. There was no miscegenation." Ball decided to research his family history regarding slaves himself, however. He set up shop in an old mansion in Charleston, poring over records from his ancestors, attending meetings of an African American genealogical society, and traveling to Africa.
His research brought Ball a different version of the truth he'd grown up with—what Edwards described as "violence and the mixing of black blood with white." One of Ball's ancestors, Henry Laurens, served as the first president of the Continental Congress, but, in Edwards's words, he "was also the largest slave trader in America."
Ball published the stories he investigated in his 1998 book, Slaves in the Family. In the course of his research, he sought out, interviewed, and apologized to descen- dants of his family's slaves. He also incurred the wrath of some of his own family members, who did not want the cruelties of their ancestors revealed. Edwards quoted one of Ball's cousins as protesting: "You're going to dig up my grandfather and hang him!" However, the impact of the author's genealogy became clear when he estimated that by the year 2000 there were at least 75,000 descendents of Ball slaves in the United States.
Critical reaction to the book focused on the sensitivity and accuracy Ball displayed in dealing with such a sensitive subject. As Jerome Weeks of the Dallas Morning News put it: "Slaves in the Family stands out because Mr. Ball actually traced several African-Americans' lineage back to individual slaves and from there the particular tribal regions in Africa from which the original captives had come"—something even Alex Haley admitted to having partially fabricated for his blockbuster Roots. Slaves in the Family went on to win the 1998 National Book Award for nonfiction.
Ball followed up with a 2001 volume, The Sweet Hell Inside: A Family History. The idea for this book came when eighty-four-year-old Edwina Harleston Whitlock, an Atlantean of mixed race, contacted Ball to tell him they were related. The keeper of a "little red book" of family history, Whitlock—a descendent of Charleston's so-called "colored elite"—shared with the author the details on a number of their forebears: one ran the Jenkins Orphanage Band, a nurturing ground for early jazz and ragtime talent; another was a notable portrait painter. Ball's "somewhat uneven work often digresses," remarked a Publishers Weekly reviewer, but the reviewer also quoted the author in saying the mosaic of family he presents "illuminates the Harleston's ‘little-known but fascinating role in the American national saga.’" A Kirkus Reviews critic had similar praise, noting that the author "writes affectingly of their unusual hardships, as well as the difficulties of some descendents, even today, in claiming kinship across once sharply marked ethnic boundaries."
In Ball's next book, Peninsula of Lies: A True Story of Mysterious Birth and Taboo Love, he branches out from his own family's history to tell the story of Dawn Simmons, another resident of Charleston, South Carolina. As Ball explains, Dawn was born Gordon Kenneth Ticehurst in Kent, England. Ticehurst became a writer and moved to New York, where he wound up inheriting the fortune of an unmarried, childless woman named Isabel Whitney. With that money Ticehurst moved to Charleston and became an antiques dealer. Then the scandals began. First Ticehurst underwent sex reassignment surgery, becoming Dawn Simmons; then she married Jean-Paul Simmons, a black man who suffered from schizophrenia. After that Simmons apparently became pregnant—which should have been impossible—and gave birth to a daughter, Natasha.
In Peninsula of Lies, Ball attempts to establish the truth behind Dawn's explanations of her sex and her supposed ability to give birth. "His solution to the mystery may not entirely surprise," Lynne F. Maxwell commented in Library Journal, "but it will certainly captivate."
Ball returned to family matters in his 2007 nonfiction work, The Genetic Strand: Exploring a Family History through DNA. When he went back to live in his native Charleston in 2000, Ball furnished his home with some furniture handed down through the family. Among the collection was an old desk in which he discovered a hidden drawer. Inside the drawer was what turned out to be a trove of ancestral booty: inside of several dated and labeled envelopes were strands of hair from his nineteenth-century ancestors. As Ball told Publishers Weekly writer Charlene Brusso, these samples meant that he could have the hair analyzed by DNA tests in an attempt to trace his genealogy. "I was expecting, initially, that I would be able to learn more about the medical history of these long-dead people, but that was because I was largely unaware of the limits of the science," Ball explained to Brusso. He was hoping for a clear picture of racial makeup and of geographic origin for these ancestors, but was rather surprised to find markers for Native American blood as well as genetic material from West Africa. Members of his family also provided Ball with cheek swabs to aid in the DNA investigation. In the end, however, Ball had a much clearer idea of the reality and limits of DNA analysis and modern forensics than he did of his ancestors. In his book, Ball discusses the limits of such DNA investigations, for DNA markers can only provide probabilities and not certainties.
Writing in Entertainment Weekly, Jennifer Reese felt such a lack of certainties weakened the book: "While [Ball] writes lucidly about the science of DNA," she claimed, he finds little to entrance the reader in his own story. A Kirkus Reviews critic, however, had no such reservations, noting that Ball's investigations into "the origins of his family leads the author to examine deeper questions about the extent to which personal identity may or may not be determined genetically." Susan Okie, writing in the Washington Post Book World, observed: "Anyone intrigued by family history will find The Genetic Strand an engaging yarn and will come away with a more nuanced understanding of the complexity of each individual's genetic past." Similarly, Gilbert Taylor, reviewing the work in Booklist, felt that author's "discoveries will enlighten those considering using DNA testing in their own family research," while a Publishers Weekly contributor concluded that Ball's "tale will intrigue America's many amateur genealogists and also serve as a cautionary tale."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Ball, Edward, Slaves in the Family, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1998.
Ball, Edward, The Sweet Hell Inside: A Family History, Morrow (New York, NY), 2001.
Newsmakers 1999, Gale (Detroit, MI), 2000.
Atlanta Journal and Constitution, February 15, 1998, review of Slaves in the Family, p. M1.
Book, November-December, 2001, James Sullivan, review of The Sweet Hell Inside, p. 66.
Booklist, January 1, 1999, review of Slaves in the Family, p. 776; October 1, 2007, Gilbert Taylor, review of The Genetic Strand: Exploring a Family History through DNA, p. 19.
Christian Science Monitor, February 26, 1998, Susan Llewelyn Leach, review of Slaves in the Family, p. 10.
Dallas Morning News, April 26, 1998, Jerome Weeks, review of Slaves in the Family, p. 1F.
Entertainment Weekly, December 18, 1998, review of Slaves in the Family, p. 71; January 15, 1999, review of Slaves in the Family, p. 57; November 9, 2007, Jennifer Reese, review of The Genetic Strand, p. 109.
Gannett News Service, March 4 1998, review of Slaves in the Family.
Independent (London, England), July 27, 1998, review of Slaves in the Family, p. 5.
Journal of Southern History, May, 1999, review of Slaves in the Family, p. 401.
Kirkus Reviews, August 1, 2001, review of The Sweet Hell Inside, p. 1078; September 1, 2007, review of The Genetic Strand.
Kliatt Young Adult Paperback Book Guide, May, 1999, review of Slaves in the Family, p. 128.
Knight-Ridder/Tribune News Service, March 16, 1998, review of Slaves in the Family.
Library Journal, March 1, 1999, review of Slaves in the Family (audio version), p. 128; October 1, 2001, Randall Miller, review of The Sweet Hell Inside, p. 118; January, 2004, Lynne F. Maxwell, review of Peninsula of Lies: A True Story of Mysterious Birth and Taboo Love, p. 139; October 1, 2007, Nancy R. Curtis, review of The Genetic Strand, p. 90.
Los Angeles Times, April 8, 1998, review of Slaves in the Family, p. E1.
Nation, September 28, 1998, review of Slaves in the Family, p. 34.
Newsday (New York, NY), March 15, 1998, review of Slaves in the Family, p. B9.
New Statesman, November 29, 1999, review of Slaves in the Family, p. 81.
New York Times, March 1, 1998, review of Slaves in the Family.
New York Times Book Review, November 18, 2001, A'eilia Bundles, "Family Tree," p. 62.
Publishers Weekly, January 26, 1998, review of Slaves in the Family, p. 20; August 20, 2001, review of The Sweet Hell Inside, p. 248; September 10, 2007, review of The Genetic Strand, p. 48; September 10, 2007, "PW Talks with Edward Ball," p. 48.
Science News, November 17, 2007, review of The Genetic Strand, p. 319.
Spectator, September 11, 2004, Sam Leith, "Upstairs and Downstairs," p. 39.
Star Tribune (Minneapolis, MN), April 19, 1998, review of Slaves in the Family, p. 17A.
Tampa Tribune (Tampa FL), December 30, 2007, "DNA Reveals Surprises about Life on Plantation," p. 4.
Time, December 15, 1997, review of Slaves in the Family, p. 107.
Washington Post, October 18, 2001, "Best Bets," review of The Sweet Hell Inside, p. T25.
Washington Post Book World, November 25, 2007, Susan Okie, review of The Genetic Strand, p. 5.
Genea-Musings,http://www.geneamusings.com/ (August 15, 2008), Randy Seaver, review of The Genetic Strand.
Internet Review of Books,http://www.internetreviewofbooks.com/ (August 15, 2008), David Hoekenga, review of The Genetic Strand.