Singing the unsung

Allen Ballard '52 reflects history through a novelist's lens

As a student at Kenyon fifty years ago and more, Allen Ballard missed "the music"-- which to him meant gospel. He'd grown up on it, listened to his grandmother sing it while she did the ironing, knew it as a force binding together the close-knit community in central Philadelphia that raised him. Every radio on his boyhood block was tuned to one station. Walking to church, he could hear the same song pouring out the front doors and over the porches of every home he passed. "You could get all the way to church and never miss a bar," he remembers.

The music that shaped him continues to shape much of what he does. As a professor of history, as a member of his church, and lately as a novelist, Ballard lives the music, teaching others how to hear its themes of freedom and faith. His seminar classes always begin with song, because, he says, "if you want to hear African-American history, listen to the music. If you want to hear what slavery was like, then you have to know the music."

So it is fitting that when Ballard, in his sixth decade, turned to novel-writing, music played a part in the project from its initial conception. Inspired by an actual regiment of black soldiers from Mississippi and Louisiana who fought for the Union during the Civil War, Where I'm Bound (Simon and Schuster, 2000; see "Books" in this issue) draws on the poetry of gospel--at once haunting, mournful, and yet hopeful--both as a structural device and to evoke the emotional landscape inhabited by its characters. Ballard, who also discovered the title of his novel in a beloved song, worked to incorporate gospel rhythms into the texture of his prose. "I found that if you want music in a book, you have to find the music in your own language," he says.

Ballard's life includes a number of firsts. One of the first two students to integrate Kenyon, he graduated magna cum laude and as president of the student body. At City College of New York (CCNY), he devised and implemented the open admissions program in the late 1960s, the first program of its kind to make higher education available to black and Hispanic students in great numbers. The publication of his first novel at the age of sixty-nine is the sweet achievement of a long-held ambition.

A professor of political science for many years at CCNY and for the past fifteen years a professor of history and African-American studies at the State University of New York at Albany, Ballard is steeped in the period that provides the setting for his novel. He drew on slave narratives and other historical sources in order to give voice to the illiterate Southern black soldiers who fought in the Third United States Colored Cavalry, "because these folks left no diaries, no historical record behind them."

Ballard sees in his own family tree an image of that era of American history. "My parents' marriage represented a real clash of cultures," a union of North and South. His mother was descended from a well-educated and long-established Philadelphia family, while his father was born in South Carolina, where his forebears had been slaves. Like half the black people leaving South Carolina between 1910 and 1930, Ballard's father and his family wound up in Philadelphia as part of the "Great Migration." Although his parents divorced when he was young--a rare event at that time--and Ballard lived with his mother, he maintained a close relationship with his father and the South Carolina relatives, thus gaining the benefit of both sides of this dual heritage. Ballard's 1984 book entitled One More Day's Journey provides an account of his father's family's "great migration" from Greenville, South Carolina, to Philadelphia. In the book, he explores life in both cities prior to the migration, and the culture that emerged from the blending of North and South.

To his father's family he owes his bred-in-the-bone love of music. An aunt and uncle, children of the grandmother who sang while she ironed, melded their classical training as pianists with the southern roots of black music, a combination that exerted a powerful influence on Ballard. His paternal history provided inspiration for Ballard's novel in another sense as well. To depict the central character of Where I'm Bound, he drew on details from the life of his paternal great-great-grandfather, John Ballard, an enslaved blacksmith on the Aiken plantation in South Carolina. Passed down as part of the family legacy, the craft of blacksmithing was taught to Ballard at his grandfather's knee. One may even detect the rhythms of the forge in his fiction.

Where his father's relatives were artisans, his mother's family had entered the professional class. It was from this side that Ballard inherited his love of literature and the writer's knack. One of his maternal great-great-great-grandfathers was the editor of a Philadelphia newspaper in the 1840s, while another relative--a reporter for a Philadelphia newspaper--wrote a novel in the 1870s. Active in the beginnings of African-American religious organizations, this ancient Philadelphia family traces its American roots back beyond the Revolutionary War. One of Ballard's relatives was at Valley Forge with George Washington.

It is nearly true to say that what Jackie Robinson was to baseball, Allen Ballard was to Kenyon, in that Ballard was one of two African-Americans (along with friend and classmate Stanley L. Jackson) to integrate the College in the fall of 1948. He had attended Central High School in Philadelphia, where the principal, a great proponent of the liberal arts, knew Kenyon's president, Gordon Keith Chalmers. Chalmers sent an admissions recruiter to Central High in search of a black student who would be a good match for the College.

Fifty years after graduation, Ballard's recollection of his time at Kenyon is both crisp and nuanced. Academic life, he recalls, exceeded his expectations, especially in the small size of the classes and the brilliance of the faculty. He developed particularly close relationships with Raymond English and Ralph Braibanti, professors in the political-science department, and with the historian Richard Salomon.

English taught him how to approach an intellectual problem. "He was a conservative person in his own writing and for his own part, but he could teach Karl Marx better than anybody I've ever had. He would approach Marx as if he were a Marxist, even though he was 180 degrees from Marx. If it was Hegel, Hegel came alive, because he would teach as if he were actually in Hegel's mind and seeing the world the way Hegel saw it."

Braibanti, a specialist on Pakistan who went on to a distinguished career at Duke University, introduced Ballard to the field of public administration, which would prove invaluable during his years at City College. "He had such insight into the ways of bureaucracies," recalls Ballard, who put those insights into practice when formulating the open admissions policy for CCNY. "He would never take an easy answer from a student; he always pushed back."

A German émigré, Salomon had come to America to escape persecution by the Nazis in his homeland. This great medievalist inspired Ballard's love of history. He absorbed Salomon's passion for detail, along with his insistence on order and structure in looking at any period of history. "Students would be waiting on the edge of their seats to see which historical figure his next lecture would bring to life," Ballard remembers. "He was a warm, generous, wonderful person." Later, as a graduate student at Harvard University, Ballard prepared for his doctoral examination in Russian history out of his notes from Salomon's lectures. "They were so clear and brilliant."

"After Kenyon," Ballard says, "you really never felt that you weren't capable of operating on the same intellectual level with anybody, anywhere in the world. That's how good the education was."

And when Ballard says "anybody, anywhere," he knows what he is saying. Take Mikhail Gorbachev, for example. In 1959-60, while Ballard was researching his dissertation in Moscow at the Agricultural Academy, he was given the opportunity to spend a month living on a farm in the area known as the Kuban. His hosts turned out to be none other than the future premier and his young wife, Raisa, both fresh from university studies at Moscow State and leading the Communist Youth League in the Kuban. "We had a very good time," recalls Ballard. "I played the guitar, and we'd sing Russian folk music and drink that wonderful wine, and we argued all the time about politics. Gorbachev loves to argue. He's a terribly insistent guy. We'd go at it all night long, until two o'clock in the morning. And the next morning, he'd start all over again."

By chance, that month in the spring of 1960 turned out to be a signal one in the history of U.S.-Soviet relations, as the U-2 incident took place in which an American spy plane was shot down over the Soviet Union. That evening, Ballard and Gorbachev together watched Khrushchev's two-hour televised speech. "Every time Khrushchev in his beautiful Russian would refer sarcastically to 'my friend Eisenhower,' Gorbachev would push me on my shoulder and say, 'See, Allen, see!'"--as though the sarcasm were not intended or might have eluded Ballard's American ear. Ballard laughs heartily at the memory.

While Kenyon's intellectual life outfitted Ballard admirably for a distinguished career in academia, the College's social atmosphere left more to be desired. At the time Kenyon made its offer, Ballard had been set to go to a historically black college, a plan his family urged him to stick with in the belief that he would be happier socially. But Ballard chose Kenyon, in part to meet Stan Jackson, with whom he had been corresponding, partly in response to pressure from local black Episcopal priests, partly because the idea of being a pioneer tempted him. Like earlier American pioneers who made westward journeys, though, he found life on the edge could be cutting at times.

Although he made some wonderful friends at Kenyon, Ballard also suffered hurts directly related to his race. A football player, he was sorely disappointed at being rejected by the fraternity that pledged his white teammates. Worse than that, he'd been led to expect otherwise. "Somebody told me it was all right, and then it wasn't all right. Frats were the center of everything at Kenyon at the time. We all came in together as freshmen, and then everybody else was getting pledged and I wasn't, and I really felt bad," he recalls.

Flash forward some forty years to this episode's happier postscript. When Ballard returned to Kenyon for a reunion in the 1990s, Robert H. Eggert '52, a friend and former teammate, invited Ballard back to the Delta Tau Delta quarters with him. "Al," said Eggert, " I just want you to see this." What Ballard saw, to his surprise, were black Delts. Eggert and his friends had been so upset by the fraternity's rejection of their teammate that they began to press for change within the organization. "They pushed right up to the national level," says Ballard, "and change did eventually come. It took a long time, but it happened. I find it touching. I didn't know about this at the time."

Ballard and Stan Jackson found alternative social opportunities in Mount Vernon, where the local black community welcomed the two young men for dinners ("that was real cooking"), in Columbus, where they attended parties hosted by historically black fraternities at Ohio State University, and on occasional weekend jaunts to Oberlin, where one of Ballard's cousins was a student at Oberlin College. He also remembers going to the movies in Mount Vernon with football buddies like Robert McOwen '52.

After spending a year at the University of Bordeaux in France on a Fulbright Fellowship and two years in the Army headquartered in Paris, Ballard earned his doctorate in government with a specialization in Soviet politics from Harvard in 1961, then began his career in higher education. He taught at Boston University, Dartmouth College, and Cornell University before joining the faculty of CCNY, then considered the jewel in the crown of the City University system. A professor of political science on a campus surrounded by black and Hispanic neighborhoods, Ballard noticed that among the hundreds of students he taught in his first few years, not even five were minority students. "And this was right in the middle of Harlem!" he exclaims. "The contradiction was hard to believe." It was to redress this disparity that Ballard helped devise the open admissions program at CCNY in the late 1960s, during which time he published his first book, The Education of Black Folk (1973). He became dean for academic development and director of CCNY's program for minority students. "It was the very first program, I think, that in a formal way admitted underachieving black and Hispanic students to four-year institutions."

In retrospect, Ballard believes his vision for the open admissions program grew out of his childhood experiences in a segregated elementary school. By the time he graduated from that school, he had seen many of his classmates die of tuberculosis, because the only health care available to them was so poor. Of those who survived--"some smarter than me, or as smart as me"--many were destroyed by alcoholism or substance abuse. "I had a great love for my classmates," Ballard recalls. "I always thought, 'If I can end up being a Phi Beta Kappa from Kenyon, what would they have been, and what would they have done?' I always had a very democratic attitude towards ability. I've found it in all kinds of people in all kinds of places. That's what propelled me."

The open admissions program was Ballard's way of paying back a debt he felt he owed to the kids who hadn't made it in Philadelphia. He is keenly aware of the mentors who helped him along the way and the opportunities they secured for him. "Kenyon played a role, too, because I had a way out through affirmative action, although I was academically in the top 10 percent of my high-school class. But in a way I was a beneficiary of affirmative action, because had not the College come looking for me and Stan [Jackson], we wouldn't have gone to Kenyon."

Returning to the College in the 1990s, he was pleased to see the number of black and Hispanic students on the campus. "A place like Kenyon really opens up the world and opens up a student's mind to the vast variety of experiences that people have had and are having and to different places, and thoughts, and ideas. And African-American and Hispanic students can benefit so much from that kind of immersion.

"Even in bigger numbers, they still have to deal with social isolation, and that's painful. But when all's said and done, from my own point of view, the immersion in the wider culture was more important for me, more beneficial for me, than the hurt from the social isolation."

Fifteen years ago, around the time Ballard moved to Albany, he began teaching himself how to write novels. He had long nursed this ambition, first in the reading room of his boyhood Philadelphia library and later in Alumni Library (now Ransom Hall). One of his Harvard professors, Michael Karpovich, stressed the role of literature in history. Ballard was inspired by the many Russian novels he read as a graduate student, which helped him visualize battles, soldiers on horses, and "the clash between a feudal system and a revolutionary kind of uprising." With several unpublished manuscripts and publishers' rejection slips behind him, he poured everything he had learned about the art and craft of fiction into Where I'm Bound.

"With writing fiction, you have to settle down and learn how. It's always a learning process. No page is ever the way that you want it to be. I always feel like I'm in an English class again, like I'm still always trying to get it right. Sometimes I feel like I'm back in my elementary school and the teacher is saying to me, 'How dare you write something as bad as that?' Writing is this act of self-exposure."

Ballard says he revised Where I'm Bound a good fifteen times, but that he actually loves the revision process more than the initial writing. "The way in which the dialogue is broken up, all the little points of stoppage. It's a craft, and everything has to be totally right. Any mistakes in your dialogue, or putting too much narrative in, wrecks the whole."

Currently working on his next novel, about a black soldier in Europe during World War II, Ballard continues to teach and to sing in the gospel choir at his church. If all goes as planned, he'll return to Kenyon this spring, and this time he'll hear the campus resound with the music he loves. Ballard has agreed to read from Where I'm Bound, accompanied by student vocal groups singing the sounds of what slavery was like.

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