He trudged southern streets searching for a place where he could eat or rest, looking vainly for a job other than menial labor, feeling the “hate stare.” He was John Griffin, a white man who darkened the color of his skin and crossed the line into a country of hate, fear, and hopelessness–the country of the American Black man.
My Thoughts (May Not Contain Spoilers)
I had originally gotten John Howard Griffin’s book Black Like Me from a neighbour who was cleaning out her basement. I heard it was a classic when it had come out (my copy is stamped by the local highschool), so I made sure to put it on my To-Read list. After reading so many books about vampires, immortals, etc., it was nice to read something completely different.
I’ve never really been one to read true story books, so I wasn’t sure what to expect. John Howard Griffin is an American writer and a journalist and the book reads much like an essay, rather than a novel. It’s written as a 6-week chronological account of the author undergoing treatments to change his skin colour from white to black. He then goes into the “Deep South” to document how a black person would be treated. Eventually, he starts alternating between black and white and is astonished by the difference.
He did this, according to the epilogue, because he wanted to see if “America was involved in the practice of racism against black Americans.” He was told by black men that the only way a white man could really get to a truth about this would be to wake up in the skin of a black man. So that’s what he did. The only thing Griffin changed was his pigmentation – his speech patterns, his credentials, everything else would stay the same. He would speak the truth in all that he did.
What amazed me was when Griffin was asked what he did for a living he said he was a writer. Someone had recognized his name and was even reading one of his books. Looking at the jacket, this person knew that the Griffin writer was a white man. It seemed that even if a black person had amazing credentials, he could still be accused of lying, of stealing someone else’s credentials to make him look good. Even if a black person went to university, they still had to walk to the same coloured cafes, or coloured rest rooms. Even though they might be higher up in their education than a white man, they could still get kicked out of places, beaten, demoralized, just because of their pigmentation. It was unbelievable to read.
While I never grew up in that time (I was born in 1981), I have always been aware of what the days “used to be like.” Even nowadays, I’m sure there are generations who still stereotype against certain races, but I found that I was more upset reading about Griffin’s account, how he was treated, because it’s not something that I grew up with. Like Griffin was told in his travels, it’s something that people are taught. We are not born to hate – instead we are taught to hate.
I found the account to be much of the same thing. I felt unfamiliar with what was going on, but familiar enough through accounts I had seen on TV and in movies (let’s just say I never was the social studies buff). Griffin’s writing was well enough, but at times I wondered if he exaggerated his story for the account of the book. At one point in the book, not too long after he started his journey in the south, he decided to write to his wife. His letter started out ‘My Darling …’ . Since Griffin was a man of colour at this point, someone who was frowned upon, demoralized even, if he chose to even look at a white woman, he wrote, ‘The chains of my blackness would not allow me to go on.’ I thought this was slightly dramatic, but maybe that’s just because I wasn’t the one in his shoes.
While I wasn’t overly stunned by what happened to Griffin as a black man in the south, I was more shocked at how he was treated once the news was out about his experiment. In the end, people of colour felt like he was one of them, as well as a white man. He received letters from people – more praising him than not. In his hometown, though, an effigy was made of him – half black and half white – hanging in the town. He was threatened, his family was threatened, all because of this experiment.
I’m not sure if, in this day and age, I would recommend this book to anyone in particular. Last year the movie Tropic Thunder came out and in that movie Robert Downey Jr. plays an African American sergeant, having “pigment alteration” surgery to make him more like that character. After reading Black Like Me, I felt like the movie was making fun of what John Howard Griffin did, almost 50 years ago, for the sake of racial equality.
A good, educational read.