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The Sweet Hell Inside: A Family History by Edward Ball




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Family Undertaking

You may have read Edward Ball’s previous book, Slaves in the Family, which won a National Book Award a few years ago. That book covered Ball’s search for the descendents of his family’s former slaves. In The Sweet Hell Inside, Ball focuses on a single descendent family, the Harleston’s, starting with the children of a white Southern gentlemen and his slave and continuing through the managers of a prosperous Charleston undertaking business, and ending with the last descendent who assembled many of the records Ball used to create this book. Ball tells the family stories with care and ease, letting the voices speak for themselves often. Issues of wealth and color, of success and failure, love and loss, cover the pages of this book, and keep a reader’s interest, even one without family connections.

Here’s a quote following a story of painter Teddy Harleston completing a portrait of Pierre S. Du Pont, which the subject liked, but his wife found severe:

“Elise wrote back to her husband with loving compliments. But despite the acclaim from both family and client, Teddy felt ashamed. He thought he still wasn’t doing well enough and told Elise to bear with him.
            ‘It made me feel very fine indeed to have you reiterate in your letter what I have known all along, that you are with me heart and soul in my little ventures in my work – in my life. I must admit it is a poor and barren sort of affair, having no big or great things accomplished to my credit, but at least it is all that I ever promised you and something worthwhile yet may come of it.’
At the end of 1924, the Chicago Defender, one of the largest-circulation black-owned newspapers in the country, ran a piece about Teddy and his accomplishments. The Defender had subscribers as far south as Alabama and Florida and east to New York. From St. Augustine, Florida, Teddy’s sister Kitty Fleming wrote to congratulate him on a year of victories.
            ‘Do you remember how you felt and how dejectedly you wrote me when you decided to take up embalming? You figured this was the end of your cherished hopes! Now, you’re surely in the limelight as you longed to be. ‘Twas with a deal of pride I read of you in The Defender, and I’m writing to congratulate you and wish you success, Success, Success.’
Teddy’s moment seemed finally to have arrived, but he felt pulled between two worlds. When he showed up for appointments in Northern cities, he would modestly describe his background, only to find people had already read about him and could name his paintings. How strange it must have been to then return to Charleston, where he was still a cultural nonentity. Among blacks at home, Teddy was a businessmen and the esteemed founder of the NAACP branch. Among whites, he was merely one of the Harlestons, just another ‘colored embalmer’ from the local undertaking family.”

Readers may become absorbed in the story of different members of an affluent black family, some of whom could have passed for white, as did some people in their social circles. The struggles and pains of the individuals will be familiar to all readers, and will likely lead to reflections about the choices we all make in life.

Steve Hopkins, February 13, 2002


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