Durwood Ball is an associate professor of history at the University of New Mexico and the editor of the New Mexico Historical Review. He is currently writing a biography of one of the most reviled figures in New Mexico history, Union Maj. Gen. Edwin Vose Sumner. Before taking part in a Smithsonian/ASU “What It Means to Be American” panel discussion, titled “How Did the American Conquest of the Southwest Shape New Mexico’s Future?,” which took place at the Taos Center of the Arts in Taos, New Mexico,” he spoke in the green room about rock ‘n’ roll, his favorite drive in New Mexico, and being a tennis fanatic.
What teacher or professor changed your life, if any?
The teacher or professor who changed my life was probably Peter Fritzell at Lawrence University, where I went to college. He was a historian and scholar of American nature writing, probably the first guy to really explore that literature as a distinct category of American writing. Just the way he thought, and taught, and wrote had a powerful, powerful impact on me, and I carry that with me ever since. Thirty years ago, actually.
What’s the best book you’ve read in the past year?
I’ve been reading a book on the Fugitive Slave Law and the return of fugitive slaves by Andrew Delbanco called The War Before the War: Fugitive Slaves and the Struggle for America’s Soul from the Revolution to the Civil War. I’m almost wrapping it up right now. I teach the American Civil War, and I teach the Mexican War era, and that book made me understand, on a real visceral level, the evil of the Fugitive Slave Law or laws in the United States, and the capture and return of fugitive slaves to the South from the North. The way he writes about the law and describes cases is just incredibly powerful.
I’ve read a lot about the Fugitive Slave Law, but it’s always been kind of this abstract thing. He really puts a human face on that complex law in a way I’ve never read before. It’s a powerful, powerful book. Brings tears to my eyes. My family owned slaves in the South, so it’s got an even more powerful impact because of that history.
What is the biggest misconception Americans have about New Mexico?
I think the biggest misconception most people have is that it’s this place where you go to vacation, to tour around in a car, it’s a place where you go to get your fix of Native American culture, and now, of course, Nuevo Mexicano culture. That it’s a Disneyland of some kind.
But this is a place where people live. Of course, Native Americans have lived here for hundreds, and hundreds, and hundreds of years—thousands of years. Hispano peoples since 1598. This is a complex place. It’s not simply a tourism playground. If you live here long enough you really do see how complex, and alive, and living this place is, how diverse, how blended the community cultures are. You just don’t get that through the tourism industry, which still really sells the tricultural model of Natives, Hispanos, and Anglos.
What’s your favorite place to eat in Albuquerque?
My favorite place to eat in Albuquerque is probably now El Patio on Harvard Street. I think that’s probably the place I go back to as much as any. My actual favorite was a place called Winning Coffee, also on Harvard Street, but it closed recently because the lease went up. I was really unhappy about that.
What’s your favorite place to visit in New Mexico?
That’s a tough one, because any direction you go in New Mexico, you just see amazing places. I think my favorite drive in New Mexico is actually south to Datil, New Mexico, or kind of southwest to Datil out of Socorro, and then southwest again toward Reserve. I love the Gila country there. That’s, I think, probably my favorite part of New Mexico.
How did you get into trouble as a kid?
Amazingly, I really was not a troublemaker. I was scared to death to get into trouble. But probably, I would get it from my parents from time to time for maybe acting up at school or being accused of acting up. If you got accused of acting up at school and you didn’t do anything, actually, you went home. That’s probably it. Or, as a preteen, being sulky toward my mother the way preteen boys often are. Little jerks.
What music do you like to dance to?
Oh, I’ve always liked just rock ‘n’ roll. Good, danceable rock ‘n’ roll with two guitars, a bass, and drums. Maybe a keyboard. One of the classes I teach at UNM is History of Popular Music in America. So I probably actually listen more to hillbilly, country blues, or Delta blues. And Americana-inflected rock or folk rock like The Jayhawks and Gillian Welch, folks like that. My car actually is full of CDs. I have the anthology of American folk music from the 1950s in my car right now.
Where would we find you at 10 a.m. on a typical Saturday?
You would find me on the tennis court at the Tennis Club of Albuquerque. I’m a real tennis fanatic. I’ve played since I was a little kid. So that’s where you’ll find me.