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Creativity and Commitment at 79
UAlbany Professor of History and Africana Studies Allen B. Ballard's powerful voice rings out in the classroom as well as in his church choir. A Collins Fellow and Civil War expert, the 79-year-old Ballard has just published his second work of fiction, Carried by Six. The novel is about hard-working, African-American families living in a Philadelphia housing project and their battles against a drug-running gang threatening to destroy them.
Ballard chose Philadelphia as the setting of his action-packed novel not only because he grew up in the city but also because he is dismayed by the violence that has overshadowed the city in recent years and blighted the future of so many black youths. The Black Caucus of the American Library Association (BCALA) has named Carried by Six an "honor book" for 2009.
His first novel, Where I'm Bound, published in 2000, detailed the lives of African-American soldiers in the Civil War. Where I'm Bound won the BCALA's first novel award in 2001. Ballard has published two nonfiction books, The Education of Black Folk: The Afro-American Struggle for Knowledge in White America and One More Day’s Journey: The Story of a Family and a People. He has also written opinion pieces for The New York Times.
With his cap set at a jaunty angle, Ballard has a laid-back manner that belies a focused creativity and determination.
In addition to his writing, he teaches six courses a year. He studies guitar, cutting his own album of traditional gospel songs in 2009. His interest in music extends to archival efforts, as he seeks to preserve the songs of gospel singers like Mahalia Jackson. Ballard even has his own YouTube video in which he performs a French folk song, “Auprès de ma Blonde.”
Ballard earned a Ph.D. in government at Harvard and was among the first American tourists in the former Soviet Union. He resided with a young Mikhail and Raisa Gorbachev for a month when he was a graduate student in the 1950s.
Ballard grew up in a household of very high standards, where being a star athlete and outstanding academic performer was expected. He was one of the first two African Americans to integrate Kenyon College, where he became a star athlete and graduated Phi Beta Kappa. He was also one of the first black Sovietologists.
While he jokes that his body remembers every football injury he ever had, he works out and swims five times a week at the University pool, maintaining an active lifestyle through arts, academics and exercise. At an age when many people are retired, Allen Ballard is learning, creating, and growing.