By Gregory Battle
“Now I understand why people choose to have biographers. This is painful to revisit.” — All-Too-Black Greg
Many of the things that have formed my life experiences are the same things that have formed the lives of other men of my age. Then there’s a whole other thing: I am visibly Black. I have 67+ years of learning what that means in the era, spaces, and places I have lived. It’s a lot — too much, lots of the time, and yet there are some “aha” moments that stand out for me as it relates to who I am as a person and a man of color. To be more specific, my identity as a Black man.
Here is my history…
I remember waking up and no one was there. I was alone. My whole world was the one I was in. I never knew being alone. I went out the door into the world and headed down a road going on a well-traveled path I was familiar with. The lady across the street called me to her.
I was 3 years old. To this day, my mother says she never left me alone. She was in the backyard hanging clothes on the line to dry. This was my first introduction to different perspectives. I also had a first-time understanding of colorism or race, as commonly named. My dad was dark-skinned, my mother light-skinned. My mom had a light-skinned mother and dark-skinned father. My dad’s parents were opposite. In my family and community there was a range of skin colors when I saw people.
Race never entered my consciousness. Then in 1960 at age 5, I went to school.
Elementary school aha: I was 6 years old. By this time, I was very comfortable in life. God had surrounded me with a loving family and with loving neighbors. Everyone seemed to like me.
Then came school.
My social experience was quite painful. Being teased, challenged, and confronted just didn’t make sense. What did I do? Then someone called me Black. They may have been Black or White, I can’t remember, yet I didn’t think of myself as Black. Being a child, very literally, I was hurt. Aha!
Things like that happened throughout my young life. I never understood why the topic of civil rights was never brought up in our family talks. The focus was always on success in schooling, getting chores done, and getting outside to play with my friends.
High school aha: I attended a White, predominantly Jewish, private high school. You see, they needed Black boys to keep their federal funding. I then discovered how sheltered I had been. Going from mostly Black schools to being one of twelve Blacks in a group of 250 students was traumatic.
In a Black literature class, I was asked about the Black opinion on a topic. I had no idea. At home I asked my dad what the Black opinion was. He asked me if I was Black.
“I am,” I said proudly.
“What’s your opinion?” he asked.
I told him.
“Well, that’s a Black opinion.” Aha!
From that moment until now, I know that no one person will ever represent the entire Black community. As with any other group of people, no one’s opinion is the opinion of all.
But know this: People can be forced to be of one mind.
The pressure of oppression is a real and tangible thing — but you won’t see it if you try to zoom in on it. You must step back, zoom out, use the wide angle, see the big picture.
Jesus gave us the same instructions. Don’t focus on the letter of the law. See its spirit, the whole creation and intent of God. No one gets to choose their race, their family, their heart, or their purpose.
We are here to be the beloved community — be hands and feet of Jesus — for one another. Aha!
Gregory Battle of Warrensville Heights in Cleveland is an elder at Lee Heights Community Church. He is a member of Grace & Groundings, Ohio Conference’s resource team which is focusing on racial reconciliation. Other members of the team include Greg Bowman of Harrisonburg, Virginia, formerly of Midway Mennonite Church; Kevin Himes, pastor of Salem Mennonite Church in Kidron; Vikki Pruitte-Sorrells, pastor of Lee Heights Community Church in Cleveland; Doug Zehr, lead pastor of Oak Grove Mennonite Church in Smithville; and Alysa Short, Ohio Conference coordinator of volunteers and a member of Central Mennonite Church in Archbold.
Another ‘aha’ experience
This moment of insight about how perceptions of race can shape experience comes from the book Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson. A group of people from around the Ohio Conference studied and discussed Just Mercy during January and February as part of the Ohio Conference Winter Read.
From pages 300-301 of Just Mercy:
Context: Bryan, an attorney, sitting at the defense table in a Midwestern courtroom by himself, dressed in suit and tie, is mistaken by the judge for the defendant and ordered out to wait for his attorney.
“…But I was disheartened by the experience. Of course, innocent mistakes occur, but the accumulated insults and indignations caused by racial presumptions are destructive in ways that are hard to measure. Constantly being suspected, accused, watched, doubted, distrusted, presumed guilty, and even feared is a burden borne by people of color that can’t be understood or confronted without a deeper conversation about our history of racial injustice.”