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

blacklikemebook-xlarge

(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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Roll Of Thunder, Hear My Cry – by Mildred D. Taylor (1976)

Roll Of Thunder Hear My Cry

This classic book is about a black family living in Mississippi during the years of the Great Depression. There’s Big Ma (the grandmother), David Paul and Mary (the parents) and their children – Stacey (12), Cassie (9), Christopher-John (7), and Little Man (6). Not far into the story, Uncle Hammer joins them, as well as an unemployed man named Mr. Morrison The Logan family owns a 200-acre farm, which was purchased after the Civil War from a northern carpetbagger. The white family that used to own the land wants it back, and will go to great lengths to get what they want.

The story is told by Cassie, the only daughter of David and Mary. Through her eyes you see the tightness of the family , as well as the harassment and prejudice that they experience from the white community. However, there are several whites who are portrayed in a positive light – Jeremy Simms, a classmate that does not share his family’s racial prejudices, and Mr. Jamison, a lawyer who supports the boycott against the local grocery store.

I greatly enjoyed reading this book. The conversations between Cassie and her three brothers were very authentic, and sounded like any other siblings’ squabbles. But my favorite part of the book had to be when her brother Stacey came up with a plan to get back at the bus driver who was always humiliating them. I also found Jeremy’s relationship with the Logan kids interesting. He was trying so hard to be their friend, but there just wasn’t any way to have a bi-racial friendship work for them.

You should be able to find this book in just about any public library or school media center. It is also available as an audiobook, with an excellent narrator. I listened to her smooth voice read the story perfectly as I drove to and from work. It was hard to turn off the CD player and get out of the car. When I reached the end of the story, I found myself wanting to hear more stories about the Logan family. And indeed, there are more stories! Stop at your local library and check out one the books written about the Logans:

Song Of The Trees (1975)
Roll Of Thunder Hear My Cry (1976)
Let The Circle Be Unbroken (1981)
The Friendship (1987)
Mississippi Bridge (1987)
The Road To Memphis (1992)
The Well (1995)
The Land (2001)

Black Like Me – by John Howard Griffin (1961, 1996) Part 3

John Griffin books

Part 3:

The third time I read “Black Like Me”, I read the 35th anniversary edition. It contained some additions that were not in the earlier printing. I was especially struck by John’s observations about racism not being limited to any one race.

 
“The Negro does not understand the white any more than the white understands the Negro. I was dismayed to see the extent to which this youth exaggerated – how could he do otherwise? – the feelings of the whites toward Negroes. He thought they all hated him.

The most distressing repercussion of this lack of communication has been the rise in racism among Negroes, justified to some extent, but a grave symptom nevertheless. It only strengthens the white racist’s cause. The Negro who turns now, in the moment of near-realization of his liberties, and bares his fangs at a man’s whiteness, makes the same tragic error the white racist has made.

And it is happening on a wider scale. Too many of the more militant leaders are preaching Negro superiority. I pray that the Negro will not miss his chance to rise to greatness, to build from the strength gained through his past suffering and, above all, to rise beyond vengeance.

If some spark does set the keg afire, it will be a senseless tragedy of ignorant against ignorant, injustice answering injustice – a holocaust that will drag down the innocent and right-thinking masses of human beings.”

(from page 159 of the 35th anniversary edition)

 

John Griffin was right. People of any race can become convinced, sometimes wrongly so, that everyone of a different race hates them. This belief builds walls between groups of people, and keeps them from understanding each other. When hearts are ruled by hate, no one wins.

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.

Rachel Dolezal

Rachel Dolezal

 

All week I have been hearing about Rachel Dolezal, the president of the Spokane, Washington NAACP who said she was black but was discovered to be white. In the uproar that followed, she resigned from her position. Rachel says that she has identified as black since about the age of five. She is passionate in her efforts to improve the lives of black people in America.

As I had just done a book review on a similar theme, this was very interesting to me.
https://alwaysreading1.wordpress.com/2015/06/14/all-the-way-home-by-ann-tatlock-2002/
In the book “All The Way Home”, Augie – a white girl of Irish/German background, becomes best friends with Sunny, who is Japanese. Augie’s family is very dysfunctional and she spends as little time with them as possible. She considers Sunny’s family to be her own, and wishes she looked Asian. Sunny, on the other hand, experiences a lot of prejudice during World War II, and eventually has plastic surgery to make herself appear white.

Rachel Dolezal is not the first person to feel more at home with a different racial/ethnic group than she was born into. She found a community where she felt like she fit in, and found a purpose in life there. Rachel changed her hair and her skin to reflect how she felt inside. Nothing wrong with that. But when she lied about her parentage, offering a picture of a black man as her father, she crossed the line. Basically she disowned and rejected her parents because they were the “wrong” color. She also betrayed the trust of the black community by not being honest with them.

This is such a sad story to me. I really don’t care how much pigmentation is in the skin of my family members and friends. God created us with great artistic variation, but there is only one race, not three or five or more. I look forward to the day when we get rid of the labels, and just see ourselves as human beings sharing this planet.

(The picture of Rachel is one that appeared in this New York Times article)
http://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/17/us/rachel-dolezal-nbc-today-show.html?_r=0