About the Book

One Man’s Battle (publication September 2011), is a poignant memoir, the story of an African-American man’s struggle to find his way, and rightful place, in today’s America. The book is approximately 250 pages, and includes a prologue, epilogue, and appendix. One Man’s Battle will be of particular interest to anyone wishing to understand what it means to be Black in 21st century America. In addition to the book’s autobiographical core, the author provides readers with insightful, provocative material on subjects ranging from the impact of slavery on African-Americans, to the importance of Christianity in shaping the Black cultural experience. In addition to general readers, One Man’s Battle will appeal to instructors and students in academic areas that include Black history and culture, sociology, theology generally, and the role of the Black church in America in particular.

The following is an excerpt from the first chapter of  One Man’s Battle (for information on how to order One Man’s Battle, email us at rufuslb@juno.com):

1. BEGINNINGS

 

“Being at play with other children, when three or four years old, I was telling them something which my mother overhearing, said it had happened before I was born… others being called on were greatly astonished…and caused them to say in my hearing, I surely would be

a prophet.”

 

Nat Turner

It was 1947 in America.

This was the year a young African American ballplayer with the Brooklyn Dodgers named Jackie Robinson won the inaugural Major League Baseball Rookie of the Year Award. It was the year Richard Nixon was sworn into the House of Representatives. The year Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier, the year Henry Ford died. 1947 was the year the Marshall Plan was launched, Miracle on 34th Street was released, and Hillary Rodham Clinton was born.

So was I.

In 1947 in deeply, stubbornly Southern, rural Louisiana, 116 years after Nat Turner’s insurrection, 82 years after slaves were proclaimed free, Robinson’s award gave a faint glimmer of the changes that lay ahead for America. But in 1947, the only thing Richard Nixon, Chuck Yeager, Henry Ford, George Marshall, or Hillary Clinton and I had in common was that we were born in the same country.

A different universe perhaps, but amazingly enough, the same country.

I came into the world courtesy of my parents, Percy and Beatrice. I was the first of their ten children (in addition to my mother’s three kids from another relationship, Honey, Charles Henry, and Mac, and my father’s three sons by a previous marriage, Little Percy, Charlie Scott, and Jessie). We lived in a little shack tucked into the turn-row of a Helena Plantation cotton field alongside a dusty gravel road just off Highway 65, about six miles from Waterproof, Louisiana.

Passing vehicles were followed by waves of swirling dust that engulfed everything in sight, momentarily blotting out the immediate world. Then, as the dust swiftly settled, our house and a few other similarly small, tattered tarpaper shacks, all occupied by equally poor Black families struggling to eke out a living, snapped back to reality with a suddenly startling clarity.

There were five small homes here, clustered within 300 yards of the highway our gravel road was connected to, in an area known as Upper Helena. Ours was the fourth perched along the road. While the first four shacks sat droopily in close proximity to one another, the fifth dwelling was set apart, nearly 200 yards down from our place and well back from the road. This shack was nestled near the graveyard where Helena’s Blacks were buried. The ground here was somewhat raised above the level of the road and the adjacent cotton fields. Two very large oak trees stood sentinel over the plots, their branches reaching down like outstretched arms, straining to embrace the fallen.

A further 200 yards beyond the graveyard stood The Big House. No tarpaper shack this. Surrounded by a neat white picket fence, this was the substantial home of the Helena Plantation’s owner, one Henry Butts.

The majesty of the Butts home was marred somewhat by the existence of several old, broken-down structures clustered outside the fence at the back of the Butts property. Now used to store farm equipment, they were originally slave quarters.

Helena was typical of many mid-twentieth-century plantations in the region. Blacks lived in small dwellings that belonged to the plantation’s owner. Barely a step above in size and quality of construction from the dilapidated former slave quarters at the back of the Butts spread, tiny, rickety homes dotted the landscape like spindly wooden mushrooms.

These shacks represented a key element in the socio-economic arrangement that made the local economy tick. Working Black families were offered a roof (often a leaky one) over their heads. They in turn offered the plantation owners cheap labor.

Since the more hands that were available, the more the work that could be done (and thus the better the chance to make some money), it made solid economic sense for Blacks in our neck of the woods to have large families. Kids from a young age, especially boys, were expected to work in the fields (the sight of eight-year-olds laboring under a sweltering Southern sun was common), hoeing in the spring and picking cotton during the fall harvests.

Most Black families living and working on plantations did so as sharecroppers. Sharecropping was an arrangement between (Black) workers and (White) plantation owners that saw Black families raise a crop, then share any profits with the owner when the crop was harvested. During the growing and cultivating seasons, owners paid sharecroppers a minimal wage – when I was a youngster the going rate was $2.50 a day for the back-breaking task of chopping cotton, and two cents a pound for picking. The owners also paid for seed, fertilizer, and any other costs incurred in raising the crop and bringing it to market. These expenses, including any wages paid, were set against the sharecropper’s share of any eventual profits.

The year after I was born, my parents decided to join with my maternal grandparents, Ida and Joseph Daniels (everyone called them Big Mama and Big Papa) in a sharecropping venture.

Not everyone participated, however.

My father, Percy Battle, was a stocky, muscular man, with distinctive African features. He had a thick mustache, trimmed so that it ended flush with the edge of his upper lip. He stood five feet eight inches and weighed 180 pounds, with shoulders as wide as his torso was long. Soft spoken, he used words sparingly, but when he did speak, it was always with a sense of conviction that made you sit up and take notice. When he said, “boy, gimme dat thing over dair,” you started reaching for something right now, even if you weren’t sure exactly what it was he wanted. Not a terribly outgoing man, he was kind hearted to strangers, always prepared to do what he could for anyone in need without question.

Percy Battle was very much his own man.

This was particularly evident in the way he went about work. He understood that relying on a sharecropping arrangement alone was to place he and his family completely at the mercy of plantation owners like Henry Butts. So while my mom, Big Mama, Big Papa, Honey, and Charles worked in the cotton fields, Dad, Little Percy and Charlie Scott headed into the nearby woods, where they cut trees and formed them into crossties that Dad sold to the middlemen who supplied the railroad. On other occasions, they’d cut wood for pulp and firewood, trap game, and catch bullfrogs. This willingness to break away from the established routine of the sharecropper, where everything revolved around cotton, set him apart from most other Black men in the area.

When the 1948 harvest had been put to bed, Big Papa walked down the road to go settle up with Henry Butts. It had been a long, hard year of heavy labor for Big Mama, Mom, Honey, Charles, and him – this was the day they had all been looking forward to since breaking ground in the early spring.

Big Papa’s excited anticipation was shattered when Butts matter-of-factly told him that the operation had “broken even” for the year. There would be no profit distribution, as according to Butts there was no profit to share. This was jolting news – Big Papa was certain the crop had brought in revenue far beyond associated expenses, but Butts kept the books, and he wasn’t about to open them up to Big Papa.

While the news was bitterly disappointing for my family, it was scarcely unexpected. Like so many other hard-working Black sharecropper families, we needed food and clothing to see us through the coming winter, a season that held few job opportunities for local Blacks. It was typical for families who found themselves in a situation similar to ours to appeal to the plantation owner for a cash advance to tide them over until the spring. In many ways such transactions led to an informal form of indentured servitude.

Henry Butts was almost certainly expecting such a request from Big Papa.

However the request never came. This was precisely why my dad quietly went about his business off the plantation, chopping and trapping. His income stream, independent of Butts, afforded us the luxury of saying “no, thank you.” We would see our way through the winter on our own.

Quietly vowing to never again subject his family’s fortunes to an unscrupulous plantation owner, by the spring of 1949 my dad had located a new situation and a new house for us. I was 18 months old when we moved to a place called Steep Bayou, located in another farming area in the countryside near Waterproof. In April, my sister, Frances, was born.

While much of post-World War II America had begun to rapidly modernize, the situation for Black families in rural Louisiana remained largely unchanged. Our “new” house in Steep Bayou was a prime example.

Like our previous abode, it was located on a cotton field turn-row. Structurally, it was little more than a modest wooden box. The walls were rough wooden planks with tarpaper on the inside, to form a moisture barrier. The wood panels on the exterior were so poorly spaced that the inside layer of tarpaper was clearly visible through numerous cracks.  A partially rusted, corrugated tin roof covered the house and porch. The net result was an ill-built structure that barely managed to shield us from rain and sun, and did a poor job indeed of sheltering us from the damp winter cold.

The best thing about the house was its porch, boasting a squeaky old rocking chair. Most folks along our new road enjoyed sitting out on their front porches when they had a moment to spare. I can still recall sitting in that chair during rainstorms, watching water cascading from the roof and splashing into puddles on the ground. The sweet smell of sodden soil seeped up through the floorboards of the porch. The roof roared with the sound of the pounding rain.

I loved it.

It’s funny how old smells stick with you. I can also clearly recollect the penetrating aroma of fresh beans cooking on the stove at our place at Steep Bayou. Beans and rice were often the only food we could afford. When times were good, some sort of meat – chicken, rabbit, pork, or raccoon – was added to the mix. I’m telling you right now, there’s nothing better in this world than a bowl of home-cooked pinto beans with chunks of savory salt pork swimming in the mix. Perhaps it tasted so good because I was so hungry. Whatever the case, there is no doubt that we took near-spiritual satisfaction from our simple meals…

Rufus Battle, an MP in Thailand

While on MP duty in Udorn, Thailand, Rufus went face to face with a full bird colonel, the Operations officer at 7th RRFS.  Learn the outcome of the racially motivated confrontation in Chapter 14 of One Man’s Battle.