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Friday, August 2, 2013

Black Like Me (Book Review)

Can you ever really understand someone of a different race?

Book Reviewed: Black Like Me

Rating: 5.0/5.0 stars

Pros: It is a classic in every sense of the word.

Cons: Not found

What does it mean to be a person another race?
The answer to the question would lead John Howard Griffin on a journey through a side of America he had never known about. All he had to do was darken his skin.

John Howard Griffin, writer and former Army medic was baffled and confused by the lack of progress on the “race question” in America. Why didn’t everyone get along? Why did it seem like the world of White Americans and Black Americans so different even though they lived in the same country?

Mr. Griffin set out on an experiment to find out the answer. With the help of a doctor, lamps and creams, John Howard Griffin transformed himself from a White journalist and writer to a Black person. (He also shaved his hair.) He didn’t change anything else that one might consider aspects of a race like language, clothes, or mannerisms. At that point, he learned just how fluid the concept of race is.

Once he began the experiment, Griffin detailed his experiences (both internal and external) as he tried to navigate through his new world. Griffin was unprepared for the response that he got. As a Black man, Griffin was denied service at check-cashing stations, was forced to move to back of the bus, was verbally harassed, and even chased down by a group of young boys. He had to learn as quickly as he could, the unwritten code of race relations in the South where he was traveling including which restrooms were open for “Colored” people, which hotels he could stay in, and how much eye contact he could have with White people. In short, he got to see a side of America that he thought never existed. He saw a side that demeaned Black women and crippled Black men. The experience left him increasingly angry and hopeless at time.

Griffin was not content, though, to just darken his skin. Griffin did various little mini-experiments and traveled to different areas to see the types of responses he would get. He put himself boldly in situations that allowed him to see how White and Black people would react. For example, Griffin would darken his skin for a little bit and then remove the creams and shading to note the differences in response. He traveled to Mississippi to get a deeper experience into a place where he felt prejudice was incredibly strong.

The negative experiences Griffin faced, though, with the new understanding and help he received from the Black community in learning how to navigate this unwritten “race relations code”. He was able to hear from Black men and women about their unrestrained thoughts on race relations. He was able to get to go beyond the stereotypes to see the actual human beings behind them. As a result, he gained a whole new respect and understanding of the race relations as it was back in the 1960’s. Sadly, a lot of the same issues Griffin describes are still with us forty years later.

Upon completion of the book, Griffin became a sort of celebrity, both in a good way and bad. He became a best-seller, but he also became a hated figure in his community and local areas around the South. An effigy of him was burned in his town and he received letters of threats in the mail. On the other hand, he became an increasingly sought after lecturer and speaker, continuing to write on a variety of topics (social justice, religion, blindness, etc.) all the way up to his death in 1980.

John Howard Griffin‘s “Black Like Me” is a classic for a lot of reasons. It features an interesting mix of journalistic writing mixed in with personal reflections and commentary. Griffin’s work also portrayed a really vivid and detailed snapshot of his world at the time in incredible detail. Griffin, in journalistic mode, is able to capture the smallest details from a glance to something larger, like a plate of food. He balances this with a grace and respect for the humanity. “Black Like Me” is not just a series of journal articles about an experiment. It is an exploration into American society and its views on race, poverty, social class, human nature, and faith.

To me, though, the greatness of John H. Griffin’s book is his openness to vulnerability. Griffin accepted the fact that he could die on his experiment, yet he had to go through with it. He risked being misunderstood (he was), being criticized and mocked (he was), because he felt that only through this experiment would he be able to get some answer to his question. As a person born in the category of White American, he could never fully comprehend the totality of the Black experience in America, but he didn’t have to. Suffering doesn’t require full participation in order for you to feel it and be forever changed. That experience temporarily crossed the barriers that are still evident in our society today. By opening himself up to such vulnerability, he grew wiser and stronger as a human being.

Let us hope that one day we can one day express the strength that he did.

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