Black Like Me – by John Howard Griffin (1961, 1996) part 1

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(This is a re-print of one of my favorite book reviews)

An old proverb says you cannot understand a man until you have walked in his shoes. In 1959, John Griffin decided to do just that. Born in Texas in 1920, he went to France as a young man, and studied both literature and medicine. He also interned at the Asylum of Tours, using experimental music therapy on the criminally insane patients. During his stay there, World War II broke out. John used his medic skills to treat wounded French Resistance fighters, and helped move Austrian Jews out of France. When it became too dangerous, John returned to the United States.

From there he served in the U.S. Army Air Corps in the South Pacific for about three years. A bombing attack damaged his vision, and by 1946 he was totally blind. In his years of blindness he experience a spiritual revival, and became a devout Catholic. He also wrote a number of stories, using his trusty typewriter. In 1953 he married Elizabeth Holland, and together they had four children. A few years later, his eyesight was restored, and John developed skill as a photographer.

By 1959, racial tensions between the whites and the Negroes were at an all-time high. This bothered John greatly, as Negroes had been treated as equals in France. He devised a plan to “become” a Negro for a month or so, then write his impressions of what it was like to be a black person in the southern states. A dermatologist gave him prescription medication to darken his skin. Skin creams and hours under a sun lamp intensified the effects. John also shaved his head so that his hair would not give him away. And so he “became” a black man, traveling through Louisiana, Mississippi, Georgia and Alabama. The things he experienced changed the course of his life.

Excerpts from page 54-55 of 35th anniversary edition:

With almost an hour before bus departure, I turned away and looked for a place to sit. The large, handsome room was almost empty. No other Negro was there, and I dared not take a seat unless I saw some other Negro also seated.

Once again a “hate stare” drew my attention like a magnet. It came from a middle-aged, heavy-set, well-dressed man. He sat a few yards away, fixing his eyes on me. Nothing can describe the withering horror of this. You feel lost, sick at heart before such unmasked hatred, not so much because it threatens you as because it shows humans in such an inhuman light….

A Negro porter sidled over to me. I glimpsed his white coat and turned to him. His glance met mine and communicated the sorrow, the understanding. “Where am I supposed to go?” I asked him.

He touched my arm in that mute and reassuring way of men who share a moment of crisis. “Go outside and around the corner of the building. You’ll find the room.”

The white man continued to stare, his mouth twisted with loathing as he turned his head to watch me move away.

In the colored waiting room, which was not labeled as such, but rather as COLORED CAFE, presumably because of interstate regulations, I took the last empty seat. The room was crowded with glum faces, faces dead to all enthusiasm, faces of people waiting.

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Black Like Me – by John Howard Griffin (1961, 1996) part 1

Black Like Me

(cover of 35th anniversary printing, 1996)

An old proverb says you cannot understand a man until you have walked in his shoes. In 1959, John Griffin decided to do just that. Born in Texas in 1920, he went to France as a young man, and studied both literature and medicine. He also interned at the Asylum of Tours, using experimental music therapy on the criminally insane patients. During his stay there, World War II broke out. John used his medic skills to treat wounded French Resistance fighters, and helped move Austrian Jews out of France. When it became too dangerous, John returned to the United States.

From there he served in the U.S. Army Air Corps in the South Pacific for about three years. A bombing attack damaged his vision, and by 1946 he was totally blind. In his years of blindness he experience a spiritual revival, and became a devout Catholic. He also wrote a number of stories, using his trusty typewriter. In 1953 he married Elizabeth Holland, and together they had four children. A few years later, his eyesight was restored, and John developed skill as a photographer.

By 1959, racial tensions between the whites and the Negroes were at an all-time high. This bothered John greatly, as Negroes had been treated as equals in France. He devised a plan to “become” a Negro for a month or so, then write his impressions of what it was like to be a black person in the southern states. A dermatologist gave him prescription medication to darken his skin. Skin creams and hours under a sun lamp intensified the effects. John also shaved his head so that his hair would not give him away. And so he “became” a black man, traveling through Louisiana, Mississippi, Georgia and Alabama. The things he experienced changed the course of his life.

Excerpts from page 54-55 of 35th anniversary edition:

With almost an hour before bus departure, I turned away and looked for a place to sit. The large, handsome room was almost empty. No other Negro was there, and I dared not take a seat unless I saw some other Negro also seated.

Once again a “hate stare” drew my attention like a magnet. It came from a middle-aged, heavy-set, well-dressed man. He sat a few yards away, fixing his eyes on me. Nothing can describe the withering horror of this. You feel lost, sick at heart before such unmasked hatred, not so much because it threatens you as because it shows humans in such an inhuman light….

A Negro porter sidled over to me. I glimpsed his white coat and turned to him. His glance met mine and communicated the sorrow, the understanding. “Where am I supposed to go?” I asked him.

He touched my arm in that mute and reassuring way of men who share a moment of crisis. “Go outside and around the corner of the building. You’ll find the room.”

The white man continued to stare, his mouth twisted with loathing as he turned his head to watch me move away.

In the colored waiting room, which was not labeled as such, but rather as COLORED CAFE, presumably because of interstate regulations, I took the last empty seat. The room was crowded with glum faces, faces dead to all enthusiasm, faces of people waiting.

Go Set A Watchman – by Harper Lee (2015)

Go Set A Watchman

Although you will find this book in the “new book” area of your local bookstore or library, it is actually quite an old book. It was written in the late 1950’s but rejected by the publishers. Ms. Lee then proceeded to write “To Kill A Mockingbird”, using many of the characters she had created for her original novel. In 1960 “To Kill A Mockingbird” was published. The book became an instant success, won the prestigious Pulitzer Prize award, and was made into a movie several years later. It was a wonderful book, loved by millions, but was it really the story Harper Lee wanted to tell? We now have her original novel, more than 55 years later.

Jean Louise (Scout) is the main character in “Go Set A Watchman”. She is now a young woman living in New York City, but is in Maycomb, Alabama for a visit. Her father, Atticus, who she has always looked up to, is old and crippled with arthritis. Aunt Alexandra lives with him and runs the household since they no longer have their black housekeeper, Calpurnia. Henry, a childhood friend who has his heart set on marrying Jean Louise, is a major character in the book as well.

On the surface, everything looks as it did in childhood days. But times are changing, and even Maycomb has been affected. The highest court in the land has ruled that its black citizens have all the rights that its white citizens enjoy. They can vote, hold political office, and go to schools that were previously segregated, among other things. It is against this backdrop that Jean Louise happens to stop in to observe a meeting of the townsfolk, where a fiery segregationist is speaking. She is shocked, and expects people – especially her father and her boyfriend Henry – to stand up and object to the hate-filled speech. That doesn’t happen; in fact, everyone seems in agreement with the guest speaker. What has happened to Maycomb and the people she thought she knew?

The story alternates between the present and the past. The scenes of Jean Louise as a schoolgirl add depth to the story, and a good bit of humor. I especially enjoyed reading the chapter where she goes to a school dance for the first time, the mishap that occurs, and the solution to the situation.

I have read both of Harper Lee’s novels, and enjoyed each immensely (after almost abandoning “Watchman”), but they are very different. “To Kill A Mockingbird” shows a more idealized Atticus with unwavering morals and a dedication to the truth, and Jean Louise as an adoring daughter who believes every word he says. In “Go Set A Watchman” Atticus’ moral and political beliefs are muddled, and he seems to be swayed by the culture, and Jean Louise is a shrill, angry woman. But if you read both books, you get a more complete picture of both Jean Louise and her father.

No human is perfect. We all have inconsistencies in our lives. We say and teach our children one way, but often behave another way ourselves. Sometimes we are strong and stand up for what we know is right, and other times we allow society to push us into conformity. Sometimes we are able to accept the flaws of those we love; other times we turn our backs on them when they don’t live up to the standards we thought they had. All in all, this is a powerful story that is well worth reading.

Excerpts from chapter 13:

…something’s wrong with me, it’s something about me. It has to be because all these people cannot have changed. Why doesn’t their flesh creep? How can they devoutly believe everything they hear in church and then say the things they do and listen to the things they hear without throwing up? I thought I was a Christian but I’m not. I’m something else and I don’t know what. Everything I have ever taken for right and wrong these people have taught me – these same, these very people. So it’s me, it’s not them. Something has happened to me.

You will not believe me, but I will tell you: never in my life until today did I hear the word “n—–” spoken by a member of my family. Never did I learn to think in terms of The N—–. When I grew up, and I did grow up with black people, they were Calpurnia, Zeebo the garbage collector, Tom the yard man, and whatever else their names were. There were hundreds of Negroes surrounding me, they were hands in the fields, who chopped the cotton, who worked the roads, who sawed the lumber to make our houses. They were poor, they were diseased and dirty, some were lazy and shiftless, but never in my life was I given the idea that I should despise one, should fear one, should be discourteous to one, or think that I could mistreat one and get away with it. They as a people did not enter my world, nor did I enter theirs: when I went hunting I did not trespass on a Negro’s land, not because it was a Negro’s, but because I was not supposed to trespass on anybody’s land. I was taught never to take advantage of anyone who was less fortunate than myself, whether he be less fortunate in brains, wealth, or social position; it meant anybody, not just Negroes. I was given to understand that the reverse was to be despised. That is the way I was raised, by a black woman and a white man.