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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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 2

John_Howard_Griffin

link to “Black Like Me – part 1”:
https://alwaysreading1.wordpress.com/2015/09/05/black-like-me-by-john-howard-griffin-1961part1/

I have read “Black Like Me” three times now, and am moved each time by John’s 1959 experience as a Negro in the deep South. John had been born in Texas in 1920, when prejudice and segregation ruled, then lived in France, where whites and blacks enjoyed the same rights. Upon returning to the U.S. later, he must have thought to himself: Why would white people hate Negroes so much?

John was one of many people in the 1950’s and ’60s who acted on their beliefs that all men were created equal, and deserved to be treated as such. His book was published two years later, in 1961. John became a much-sought-after speaker about civil rights. Wherever he went, his speeches made people angry. John wrote:

“In my own case, if I stayed more than three days in any large city, I usually tried to change hotels or else move in with some black family. In one city in Louisiana where I lectured, I could not even stay in the city because all the lodging places had been threatened with bombings if they accepted me as a guest.

This kind of thing continued throughout the early and mid-sixties. We led strange, hidden lives. We were advocating only one thing: that this country rid itself of the racism that prevented some citizens from living as fully functioning men and as a result dehumanized all men. We were advocating only that this country live up to its promises to all citizens. But since racism always hides under a respectable guise – usually the guise of patriotism and religion – a great many people loathed us for knocking holes in these respectable guises. It was clear that we would have to live always under threat…”

(from page 167 of the 35th anniversary edition)

Finally, the death threats became too great. John, his parents, his wife, and the four children moved to Mexico for awhile.. Sometimes when you follow your conscience, life does not reward you. Instead, you may find yourself rejected or even harmed. But in the end, you have to live with yourself. Thank God for people who persist in speaking the truth and standing up for what they know is right, even when it costs them dearly.

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.

To Kill A Mockingbird – by Harper Lee (1960)

To Kill A Mockingbird

“To Kill A Mockingbird” centers around the Finch family in the small fictional town of Maycomb, Alabama during the Great Depression. The head of the household is Atticus, a widower and a lawyer, a man of deep religious and moral convictions. He has a son – Jem, a daughter – Jean Louise (Scout), and a black housekeeper – Calpurnia. Atticus is older than most fathers of young children in town, and the Finch family lives in a neighborhood of mostly senior citizens, so the children grow up mostly playing by themselves and being around older people. The first 80 pages or so focus on the day-to-day life and conversations of the Finch family, and set the base for the rest of the book.

Then the story really takes off. Atticus becomes the defense attorney for a black man charged with attempted rape of a white woman. As it is the 1930’s, there is still widespread segregation and mistrust between the two races. Many in town consider it disgraceful that Atticus is trying to get Tom Robinson acquitted. The racial prejudice affects everyone in town, either directly or indirectly.

There are many things to love in this classic novel – the close brother-sister relationship of Jem and Scout, the quirky character of the neighbors, the mystery of the man across the street, the depth of Atticus’ nature, and the two sides to Calpurnia. The amusing conversations of the children are mixed into the story to keep it from becoming too heavy and depressing. The account of the trial is very well written, and makes Atticus shine.

But the thing I enjoy most about this book is the way Atticus speaks to his children, as if they are grown-ups not children. He instills in them a love and respect for people of all racial and social groups. It doesn’t seem to bother him in the slightest when others disagree with him and mock him. Atticus teaches his family to walk to the beat of a different drummer, and to not be afraid when trouble comes.

Excerpt:

“Scout,” said Atticus, “when summer comes you’ll have to keep your head about far worse things . . . it’s not fair for you and Jem, I know that, but sometimes we have to make the best of things, and the way we conduct ourselves when the chips are down – well, all I can say is, when you and Jem are grown, maybe you’ll look back on this with some compassion and some feeling that I didn’t let you down. This case, Tom Robinson’s case, is something that goes to the essence of a man’s conscience – Scout, I couldn’t go to church and worship God if I didn’t try to help that man.”

“Atticus, you must be wrong . . .”

“How’s that?”

“Well, most folks seem to think they’re right and you’re wrong . . .”

“They’re certainly entitled to think that, and they’re entitled to full respect for their opinions,” said Atticus, “but before I can live with other folks I’ve got to live with myself. The one thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience.”