Metroland LogoOctober 5, 2000
Vol. 23, No. 40
Metroland CoverBy Gene Mirabelli
Photography by Kris Qua
ARTS FEATURE

A Separate History

With a gospel song in his heart, UAlbany professor Allen Ballard uses a rousing adventure story to explore the Civil War from an African-American perspective

When Allen Ballard was growing up in a close-knit black neighborhood in Philadelphia, there was always music. “On a Sunday morning, you could walk out of my house and go to church five or six blocks away,” he recalls. “And you could walk down the street and every house would have the same radio station on. You wouldn’t miss a bit of the song all the way to church. There was this beautiful sense of community, despite poverty.”

And there was one song in particular that he used to play on Sunday mornings, a song with the lines: “I couldn’t hear nobody pray/Oh, I couldn’t hear nobody pray!/I was way down yonder by myself/And I couldn’t hear nobody pray!” Young Ballard always wondered about that song, always wondered who the first person was to sing those words, and what situation she was in.

Now, a full lifetime later, he has written a novel in which a black woman sits alone by the side of a dirt road without any hope of living another day—her husband is lost somewhere in the turmoil of the Civil War, her 4-year-old daughter is dead, another daughter and a son are missing. Out of her emptiness, isolation and terror, totally cut off from everybody and everything, she begins to sing.

Published by Simon & Schuster and released today [Thursday, Oct. 5], Ballard’s Where I’m Bound is a swift-moving narrative about a black cavalry regiment during the Civil War. The story focuses mostly on the exploits of an escaped slave who joins the regiment, a daring man in battle who also attempts to find and reunite his scattered family during the last months of the war. This is a remarkable debut for any writer, and when you realize that the author is 69 years old and has never published a novel before, it’s even more impressive.

The tall, affable Ballard is a professor at the University at Albany, where he teaches history and African-American studies. He’s a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Kenyon College, holder of a Ph.D. in government from Harvard University, and the author of two highly regarded nonfiction works on the African-American experience. The black cavalry regiment at the heart of Where I’m Bound isn’t fictional: the 3rd United States Colored Cavalry really existed. In fact, the North had five black cavalry regiments; 10 percent of the Union troops were African-Americans, and by the end of the war, says Ballard, that figure had risen to 20 percent.

But you already knew that, right? Now why would a distinguished social historian, a person devoted to eradicating myths and fictions, turn around and write a popular novel about an actual black cavalry unit? Part of the reason, Ballard explains, was to inform as many people as possible about the role of African-Americans in the Civil War.

“Southern historians took over the management of American history,” Ballard says. “They dominated it, and these [false] ideas came out about Reconstruction, these ideas came out about Lee being the great gentleman, and even now if you say something about Lee—I swear to goodness—and if you’re in an all-white audience of Civil War people, and you say he was a traitor—which he was, for he took an oath to the United States—you’d probably be lynched.” Ballard has an engaging laugh as he talks about these things, but he’s serious. He mentions the names of certain distinguished historians of a generation ago and says, “They created a school of history which faulted the blacks and exalted the South, and these [ideas] became part of American history. . . . They wrote and they wrote and they turned history around.”

Ballard believes that defeated Southerners and triumphant Northerners eventually were reunited in their anti-black sentiments, for they had more in common with each other than either had with the African-Americans among them. Thus, he says, historical truth was lost. Joe Duckett, the fictional hero of Where I’m Bound, is based on a historical figure, the black cavalryman Alfred Wood, who performed truly amazing deeds while riding with the 3rd USCC. But the women in the novel are entirely made up, including Joe’s sister Pauline. Pauline is owned by Richard Kenworthy of Clifton Plantation, who takes her as his mistress and later gives her to his sister Dorothy, who—within limits—treats her rather like a sister.

The publication of Mary Chestnut’s voluminous and gossipy Civil War diaries in the 1980s, along with the more recent release of two movies about Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemmings, suggests that white Americans are getting around to acknowledging the tangled sexual relations between white masters and black female slaves. In Ballard’s novel, the master of Clifton Plantation forces himself on Pauline and, over time, Pauline comes to accept these sexual encounters and even to look forward to them, though she hates herself for her behavior. Where I’m Bound is, as the author says, “an action novel” with little opportunity to unravel the complex psychology of a woman like Pauline.

“I don’t think any black woman ever had a voluntary relationship with a white man in the [antebellum] South, in the sense that they never had the option of leaving,” Ballard explains. “That’s not to say that a woman, for whatever reasons of survival, or for her children, might not have gotten into a whole habit of affection for this master. But it was complicated,” he adds broodingly. “I think, when you write, you have to look at all possibilities.”

Allen Ballard is a distinguished scholar with an advanced degree from an Ivy League university. But he’s also a plain and simple man who can be found in work clothes and a baseball cap, sharing a table with a friend in the local bagel shop. He’s written Where I’m Bound in a plain, headlong style suited to a story about a cavalry regiment. There are some nice turns of phrase in the way his characters talk, a remarkable and simple poetry in their speech (“She looked at him like he had invented sunshine”), such as he sometimes catches in the conversation of his old friends at the Mount Calvary Baptist Church.

Above all, his book has songs. Songs are how the people in this novel express their deepest emotions; their songs bear the burden of their lives. “I’ve sometimes told kids in my classes if you want to hear African-American history, listen to the music,” Ballard says. “If you want to hear what slavery was like, then you have to know the music.” The author was born into a family filled with music, and one of his earliest memories is of song. “My grandmother used to iron clothes and she’d just be singing these songs, these beautiful songs, and I’m 3 years old, holding on to the legs of the ironing board, listening to my grandmother sing.”

His parents were “achieving folk,” he says, college-educated and cultured. “My father’s family had great musicians, well trained not only classically but also trained in that beautiful rhythm, that beautiful, melodic, powerful rhythm of spirituals. And to hear my aunts play the piano was like hearing a full orchestra.” Though his parents divorced, he remembers no animosity in the family. Quite the contrary, he recalls a childhood of love and community. Upon graduation from high school, and with an outpouring of support from Philadelphia’s black community, young Ballard became one of the first African-American students to enter Kenyon College—“to integrate Kenyon,” as he says. At that time, in the late ’40s and early ’50s, the Kenyon faculty was home to a notable group of conservatives. But one man, his college football and lacrosse coach, was an inspiration to him, and he later used that coach as a model for certain white officers of the 3rd USCC.

After Kenyon, Ballard went on to do graduate work in government, with an emphasis on Soviet politics. At Harvard, he studied under luminaries such as Merle Fainsod, Richard Pipes and Michael Karpovich. “Karpovich was one of my heroes,” he says. “And the way he taught emphasized the role of literature in history. And I took a lot of courses in Russian lit and Soviet lit.” When Ballard began to look for a subject to write a novel about, everything in his life came into play—the songs he heard from his grandmother at the ironing board, the songs he heard while walking to church in Philadelphia, the adventure books he read as a boy and even, astonishingly, the Soviet novels he read at Harvard.

He briefly considered writing about the well-known 54th Massachusetts, the regiment celebrated in the movie Glory. But the 54th was composed primarily of free blacks from the North, an educated and articulate group who kept diaries and wrote letters that ensured their place in the historical record. Ballard was drawn to the 3rd United States Colored Cavalry, a unit composed of former slaves from the South. “These folks for the most part were illiterate, leaving no diaries that I’ve seen,” Ballard says. “Though I think when I’m finished, I’m going to see a lot of diaries,” he adds with a laugh.

Ballard saw his task as giving voice to those black cavalrymen, to render the record whole. Furthermore, the fact that the 3rd USCC was a cavalry unit excited the author, for he retains his kid’s love of a good adventure story and his graduate student’s pleasure in the novels of Isaac Babel and Michael Sholokov. From Babel’s Red Cavalry, he recalled “these incredible scenes on horseback” with the Cossacks, and then, thinking of his own work, “I saw horse soldiers and large masses of men moving rapidly over everything,” and he recalled from Sholokov “the clash between a feudal system and a revolutionary kind of uprising.”

Ballard is still teaching, energized by the students in his African-American studies. He dedicated Where I’m Bound to Nellie R. Bright, principal of Joseph E. Hill Elementary School in Philadelphia, and to the Right Reverend E. Sydnor Thomas, Rector of St. Barnabas Protestant Episcopal Church. Recently, he was asked to plan a reading from Where I’m Bound at UAlbany. He knew that a plain reading would be incomplete without the music that is woven through the novel. Ballard is a longtime member of the male chorus at the Mount Calvary Baptist Church, and he is in church every Sunday. “These people,” he says, “are not only my friends and fellow churchgoers—they are all part of my connectedness with the people I’m writing abut.”

So he called upon his friends at Mount Calvary, and when Ballard reads from his novel, the choir will be there to sing.

Allen Ballard
Metroland

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