Black History Month
Ryuse shares tale of overcoming prejudice
Steven Ryuse's athletic ability and his parents' interest in tennis led him to become a nationally recognized tennis player for the Ohio State University in the late 1970s.
He now teaches tennis professionally in Columbus and Worthington.
But his life wasn't always easy, New Albany students learned last week.
Ryuse, a Columbus resident and the author of I Didn't Know I Was Black: Growing up Black in the White World of Tennis, spoke to New Albany students during a Feb. 15 assembly celebrating Black History Month at the Jeanne B. McCoy Community Center for the Arts. Students in grades 2 to 12 also performed re-enactments of several significant events in black history.
Ryuse's skin color was so unusual in Mount Vernon, the rural Knox County city where he grew up, that his second-grade teacher once held a green piece of cloth up against his skin in class while explaining why African women wear bright-colored clothing.
"It was embarrassing and I think it was the wrong way to do things," he said. "So some things did leave an impression on me and that didn't sit well with me."
Growing up in a predominately white community, Ryuse spent most of his time playing tennis instead of hanging out with friends.
He became good at it and, although he never took any lessons, ended up defeating an Upper Arlington High School student who was a ranked player in the state.
Being beaten by an unranked, untrained Ryuse prompted Columbus-area teams to refuse to play him, Ryuse said. It meant he had to travel to Cleveland to play and to become ranked in the sport.
An Ohio State tennis coach spotted him and invited him to try out for the college team. Chosen as a walk-on, Ryuse said he was pleased to see more black people on campus but he couldn't escape the prejudice he'd faced earlier in life.
"Black folks didn't care for me much, me with my tennis rackets," he said.
Most of the black male athletes at Ohio State played football or basketball and nicknamed Ryuse "California" because he was different, he said.
When he started dating a white girl, Ryuse said, they went to a party and were confronted by people who were against interracial dating.
"I was mentally color blind," he said. "I didn't see color and was not exposed to color."
The girl eventually ended the relationship because of the pressure, Ryuse said, and he struggled with the fact that he'd been raised in a white community and played a sport that had predominately white players.
"I still had an identity problem," he said. "I felt out of place."
Ryuse told the students that his temper often got the better of him when he was confronted by discrimination, but he encouraged them to do the opposite and walk away from potential fights.
"We have no time for racial tension with all the other problems we have in this world," he said.
Ryuse asked how many students have heard the "N-word" in rap music and encouraged them to eliminate that word from the English language.
He said prejudice will never be eliminated completely but the youngest generations have a chance to push for change.
"It's like drugs," he said. "You're not going to get rid of prejudice, but you guys are going to push it away and you're going to teach your kids the same."
Students said they learned much from Ryuse.
"I have a different way of looking at (prejudice)," said 14-year-old freshman Jackson Hill. "I'd probably let someone know now that it's happening so it can be stopped. I feel bad that I don't do anything and I'll make sure to not turn a blind eye to what's going on any more."
Mehek Sheikh, a 14-year-old freshman, said Ryuse's comments about rap music made her think.
"I thought it was very insightful, the whole discussion on such a vile word," she said. "I'll listen to what's said in lyrics and reflect on what I'm exposing myself to."