One Man's Battle

The cyber home of author Rufus Battle

A Wakeup Call

Excerpt from: “One Man’s Battle”

In the spring of 1998, Mom called. We had our usual conversation, during the course of which she asked what I was up to. My answer was by now a familiar one to her – “reading,” I said – after all, as a full-time graduate student, cracking the books was all consuming.

Her response was telling: “Now don’t read too much, it’ll make you crazy!”

I was taken aback. Where on earth did that come from? “Too much reading will make you crazy.” The more I thought about it, the clearer the answer became. Mom had spent the first 40 years of her life, stuck on one Louisiana plantation or another. The notion reading could be detrimental to one’s mind was apparently rooted in slaveholder propaganda, designed to keep slaves in intellectual shackles. The fact a notion so patently ridiculous had survived for so long took my breath away.

I knew my mom knew better. She wasn’t one to question why someone stuck working in a cotton field should bother to learn good grammar, gain a solid grasp of arithmetic, and have a handle on history and civics. While she may never have considered a college education the key to achieving the American Dream, she was well aware of the benefits of knowledge in coping with daily life. Even Papa Joe (My grandfather), a slave at heart, who likely never contemplated real freedom for himself, understood a different life was possible for those who worked toward that end, with education an important factor. My mom’s comment might just as well been utter by a slave mother to her son 200 years ago – what a wakeup call.

Numerous issues in the Black community have roots in practices designed to sustain slavery. Most would be astounded to know the extent to which measures used to sustain slavery continue to affect the lives of descendants.

History and Today’s Communities

Born on a Louisiana plantation, I was imbued with the stigma of oppressive ideology at an early age (by age six).  Awareness that I was considered less a person due to my skin color became an indictment against which I have suffered emotionally much of my life.

Many issues in Black communities are corollaries from the historical practices of slavery and oppression. A conversation regarding root causes to problems in today’s communities would certainly lead to better understanding of these problems and American society as a whole.

Shackles of Slavery

Excerpt from: “One More Row to Hoe”

My siblings and I are third generation descendants of slaves who remained on the plantation after emancipation. Many such families filled the countryside in the fertile farmlands of northeastern Louisiana in the 1950s. The Helena plantation was located near Waterproof, Louisiana, about 35 miles north of Natchez, Mississippi. The little plantation shack which we called home offered nothing to dispute claims we were merely the subservient hands of a White ruled society.  Poor uneducated Black families, almost exclusively, inhabited such dwellings which stood conspicuously along the edges of cotton fields throughout the region. Such were the families on the Helena Plantation where I was born.

From around the age of ten, I began to work in the fields with servile old men, many of whom never saw the light of day outside our little rural community. Sadly, some appeared to have succumbed to idea they were destined to be servants. These were gentle old souls, who would give you the shirt off their backs, even while striving daily to make ends meet for their families.  Besides my parents and grandparents, men such as these had been instrumental in shaping my approach to life during my childhood. Underneath an often selfless persona in the older field hands was a solemn apathy for their existential state within American society.

The stigma projected upon our race clung to me like a garment.  Instead of believing in myself and using my special gifts to move ahead, I spent more time attempting to prove myself within the confines of some task or accomplishment which had no bearing on the grand theme of life.  Though I knew my intellectual abilities were superior to most, I hesitated to assert myself because I didn’t want to be in the spotlight.  I was labeled as shy due to my hesitance and soft spoken, carefully controlled personality. The impetus behind this behavior was a deep sense of shame. Yeah carefully controlled alright, and contented to remain in the shadows for one reason only; SHAME. Haunted by feelings of inadequacy, I strove relentlessly to prove myself, often going to great lengths to get woos from those around me.  Though others raved about my performances I could never do enough to please myself and was never satisfied.

Though these tendencies and attitudes reflect my personal life, the invisible “shackles of slavery” vary among individuals and might manifest in different ways among others within the Black community.

One More Row to Hoe

I’ll never forget my first day chopping cotton as a paid field hand. Saturday morning in the spring of 1958, hoe in hand, ready to show what I could do. There I was, ten years old, looking down a row of cotton plants a quarter mile long. A blanket of mist hovered over the field, as the morning dew evaporated. At 7:00am the temperature was already 85 degrees. Anxiety rampant in my gut overshadowed any discomfort I might have felt due to the climate conditions. A prickly sensation crawled over my scalp, as droplets of sweat rolled down the back of my neck, dissipating into the collar of my flannel shirt. Now officially a paid hand, thoughts about my ability to handle the job filled my consciousness. My job was to remove all the weeds and grass, while avoiding the cotton plants, but thinning out areas where too many plants grew together. Having observed field-hands performing this task every spring since old enough to remember, I knew well what the job required. By sundown, I would have earned a day’s wages, same as everyone else, a lofty sum of three dollars.

Looking down that first row, the thought of the work before me was overwhelming. Just getting to the end seemed a monumental task. And then, seemingly, endless other rows stretching across this pocket of farmland nestled between patches of wooded swamps, waited to greet me. Two of the older men grabbed the first two rows and went to work, moving with little apparent effort. I immediately followed suit, though hardly moving with as much ease as them. Though no one in the group was officially in charge, I humbly took my cue from the older men. Those old sons of slaves were like machines. They always gave an honest effort, diligently doing the job they were paid to do despite having no overseer.

Every time I looked up the group had moved farther ahead of me. With crisp smooth strokes, I guided my hoe through the sun-baked crust into the dark moist soil beneath as fast as I could, careful not to cut the cotton plants. Though I was only ten, my skills with a hoe were polished, having spent many hours tending Big Papa’s vegetable garden, reputedly the best on the Helena plantation. But moving as fast as I could, the others steadily moved farther ahead. Now it was more than just the physical work confronting me; fear of failure was waging war within. I was already getting weary only 30 minutes into the work day. Looking down my row accessing the work ahead, I thought; “just get to the end and everyone will know you can handle the job.” Finally I reached the end. By then the rest of the group was well on their way back on another row. I quickly moved over to the next row, looked down upon the work ahead and again felt overwhelmed. Maybe I wasn’t good enough, or maybe this was just another example of a place I didn’t belong. If only I could do my job as well as the older men, then I would win their approval – I would belong.

Free by Nature

For many Blacks in the Deep South, 100 years after their ancestors’ emancipation, survival depended largely upon field labor. For these freedom was just an empty political concept, not an accessible reality. Uneducated, despised by some Whites, and shackled away from means to upward mobility, they grudgingly held onto the menial sustenance afforded them, as their ancestors had done through generations dating back to slavery. Living in houses provided by plantations owners, entire families worked in the fields, a model closely resembling the horrific slave driven operations of the past. Workers were routinely berated by plantation bosses; paid barely enough to live on and constantly reminded that their place in society was below Whites by nature. Statements such as “you should be thankful that I provide work for you,” was typical response to any mention of inadequate pay or harsh working conditions.

Fortunately for me, born on a plantation in mid-Twentieth Century, I lived among and bore witness to these heartbreaking circumstances. Yes I did say fortunately. For I would freely choose the same deployable circumstances, as the experience now gives me the opportunity to share events which are so critical to our present lives, yet virtually ignored by historians in our time. Besides that, how else would the world know about my dad, Percy Battle.

Though Percy raised his family in the region, taking advantage of the little shacks offered as housing to plantation workers, he never stooped with servility as others did. He cleverly avoided working in the fields personally, stringing plantation owners along, sometimes for several years as he pursued his own means to provide for his family. Since plantations dotted the landscape throughout the cotton belt, he could always find another little shack to accommodate his family. Seven times, between 1947 (the year I was born) and 1962 (the year we moved to New Orleans), he relocated us. With fearless determination he moved about the countryside – his family in tow – undaunted by society’s constructs against him – my dad and my hero.

Confrontation in the military

While on duty as an MP,  Rufus went face to face with a Full Bird Colonel, the Operations Officer at 7TH  RRFS in Udorn, Thailand.  Learn details of this racially motivated confrontation in chapter 14 of One Man’s Battle.