(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.