An Interview with Dr. Erica Ball
By Daviona Moore
This month JCI is spotlighting Dr. Erica Ball, historian, writer, and Occidental College Black Studies professor. Dr. Ball's work often brings forth narratives of Black female icons who are often overlooked in standard education and what they have contributed to history. This is a trend that's persisted today, making Dr. Ball's work that much more significant.
I was given the opportunity to sit down with Dr. Ball and discuss her array of publications published just in the last decade. We dissected her involvement in education and writing in addition to what she has planned for the future.
Daviona Moore: How would you describe the field you work in?
Erica Ball: I'm a historian by training, currently using my Ph.D. in history to teach at Occidental College. I specialize in 19th and 20th-century African American history, and I publish on two overlapping areas, one is kind of the broad history of slavery in the abolitionist movement focusing on African Americans as agents, and the other is how Black Americans have used expressive forms of culture, dress, literature, and arts to call a range of expressive forms to be defined and integrated into the freedom struggle. I’ve taught a writing course on race in popular culture, which centered on the experiences of African Americans, and tried to touch on some other communities as well, and allowed students to do the research projects on whatever area was most interesting to them. We get to look at some of the forgotten stories and talk about the larger significance of race in popular culture.
Daviona Moore: How would you describe the work that you do at Occidental College?
Erica Ball: I was hired in the fall of 2016 alongside Professor Courtney Baker to build a Black Studies entity. It took us a couple of years and collaboration with other folks, but we were able to put together a proposal and create more than a Black Studies entity, but Black Studies major and minor. A full-blown program, which is now a Black Studies Department. My role now focuses on building this department as the inaugural Mary Jane Hewitt Department Chair of Black Studies, a real effort to bridge departments on campus to work with students and ensure that the Black Studies department reflects the range of their interests. We also try to make connections with Black alumni who have not always been well-connected to the institution to build a community in the broadest sense.
Daviona Moore: Do you have any campus programs or really any “wins” in your life you’d like to highlight?
Erica Ball: I’m excited because I’ve just had two books come out back to back! The first one came out in the fall of 2020, it’s a big one called As If She Were Free. It's an edited collection that I worked on, along with a specialist in Latin American studies. It's about how women of African descent strove for work and fought for emancipation and self-liberation from the 16th century through the late 19th century. Each chapter is a biography about a specific woman that people may not have ever heard of. Take Mary Ellen Pleasant, who is the mother of civil rights in California and happened to be the largest financial contributor to John Brown's 1859 raid. This was because she made a little money in the gold rush era in California as a boarding housekeeper. I have another book, my new biography of Madam C.J. Walker that introduces readers to the woman who was more than a haircare entrepreneur, more than the first self-made woman millionaire in the United States, but an outspoken activist. She was a pioneer and marketing techniques and someone who's been significant in African American memory since the early 20th century.
Daviona Moore: What was your inspiration for getting into writing?
Erica Ball: We had an option of doing just a senior seminar paper to graduate or a two-semester honors thesis that had to be a minimum of 100 pages. I picked the honors thesis and wrote it on the National Association of Colored Women. It was difficult, but I loved the process. I graduated and worked for a couple of years at a publishing company and nonprofit bank. I worked at the bank for a year and I realized I wanted to do more research and writing, so I decided to apply to graduate school. I went back and got the Ph.D. and stuck with the research and writing route.
Daviona Moore: There’s been a pattern throughout history of women serving as moral anchors, a role that can be detrimental and lead to the policing of women's bodies by their oppressor arguing it's for their protection. How do we work to combat these limitations that are placed on us as change agents? What do we do to uplift fellow African American women and women of color overall?
Erica Ball: There’s this theme in African American history, this tendency to assume that men are the sole leaders of all movements. The Civil Rights Movement in the United States is a great example of that, in the way we frame Martin Luther King as the sole leader out in front. Meanwhile, there's an army of foot soldiers doing a ton of work, who have been rooted in the community, with many members of that army being women.
How do we uplift women? Black women have been the engine of protest struggle from the get-go, so perhaps knowing that is a way to push back against some artificial constraints and limitations in society. Look at the co-founders of the Black Lives Matter movement, spreading knowledge of their history, it’s inspiring and a way to push back against what people think is appropriate.
"There's no one way to be Black! We contain multitudes and all of those lives matter."
Daviona Moore: Why do you believe the intersection of Black Lives Matter and other identities is important?
Erica Ball: Because there's no one way to be Black! We contain multitudes and all of those lives matter. I want us to show it, claim it, live it, be it, and be healthy and happy! This move to highlight various intersectionalities was a great step forward for our culture. It makes me very happy that theory’s being put into practice in ways that have a material effect on people's lives and well-being.
Daviona Moore: Do you have any advice for your younger self?
Erica Ball: I would say believe in yourself and don't believe the haters. Honestly, at my very first job, a senior member of the department said he viewed me as “almost legitimate” but not fully legitimate. So if you have imposter syndrome, which I will say I fully had, that kind of stuff sticks with you. You have to be able to say he cannot and does not define me with his thoughts. I would tell myself that I absolutely deserve to be in any space that I want to be, whether it was built for me or not. It's taken me a long time to learn that through trial and error. My current goal is to build more confidence in myself because that's a lesson that will take a long while, but baby steps.
Daviona Moore: Who are some of your favorite contemporary activists right now?
Erica Ball: You've got to love Patrisse Cullors and the work that she's done with Black Lives Matter. I admire Melina Abdullah as a local activist. Cal State LA’s Africana studies program has flourished with her ability to balance chairing a department and daily activism. She was out protesting in front of City Hall every weekend for years and I think that kind of commitment is extraordinary. Of course, Stacey Abrams has my heart because she’s someone who can take the Black organizing tradition and leverage it to show voting matters. Think about what we can do with that kind of power long term. My parents live in rural Georgia. My dad's ill and his hands aren’t as functional so he can't sign his name. But he knew who he was voting for as a totally mentally competent man, there's no requirement that says your hands have to work to vote. The democratic organizers kept calling my parents after they had voted and found out that my father's vote had been discarded. They went down to their local town square, past the confederate monuments, and cast their vote in person. I think of the kind of work it takes to make that happen all over Georgia, which they did with the victories of a Jewish and Black Senator in that state.
Daviona Moore: Do you have any projects to share or a call to action?
Erica Ball: As a call to action, I would say my mantra is to try to make tomorrow better than today. Do the work that you need to do to make your community better for everyone, which requires a kind of radical kindness and empathy. Ultimately, that’s how I try to approach each day and every day.
Erica L. Ball is the Mary Jane Hewitt Department Chair in Black Studies at Occidental College. She is the author of To Live an Antislavery Life: Personal Politics and the Antebellum Black Middle Class (2012) and Madam C. J. Walker: The Making of an American Icon (2021). She is co-editor, with Kellie Carter Jackson, of Reconsidering Roots: Race, Politics, and Memory (2017) and co-editor, with Tatiana Seijas and Terri L. Snyder, of As If She Were Free: A Collective Biography of Women and Emancipation in the Americas (2020). She is currently writing a book examining the contested public memory of slavery in twentieth-century U.S. history. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.