I read “Black Like Me” about once a year.
Widely acclaimed for its daring, roundly criticized for its superficiality, it still resonates 50 years later.
Yes, as a nation we’ve made significant forward motion, but the recent viral video featuring Ms. Karen Klein who was bullied by some truly misguided 7th-graders until she wept demonstrates in a riveting manner how the herd instinct operates. If a group of people conspire to keep another person/group/race/religion down, and no one does anything to stop it, things spiral out of hand in a frightening manner. Translate those four boys into an entire society and you can see that the primal brutalities which lay at the heart of the slave trade and all subsequent indignities inflicted upon those of African descent are in no way gone… just covered up with a veneer of respectability. There are still some really, really mean people out there.
I was 4 years old when Rosa Parks shook the world, 8 years old when “whites only” was still seen commonly around the South, and 14 years old when civil-rights activists marched from Selma to Montgomery. I was fortunate to have been raised in the multi-racial, multi-faith, and multi-cultural environment of New York, but there are millions of people my age who were not, and for whom second-class citizenship was as normal as a toasted English muffin. Many of them are still alive, and old habits and old ideas die hard.
The good news is that the rising generation is being brought up in a world where intolerance and prejudice is largely looked upon as an abomination rather than the norm. Witness the more than $600,000 raised by over 30,000 people from 80 nations for the good Ms. Klein by indiegogo, who, thanks to that outpouring of support and execration of the bully mentality, will never have to work again. Witness the punishment of the four boys involved, who instead of the usual slap on the wrist were handed 1-year suspensions, community service, and anti-bullying counseling. Nowadays, more and more people are becoming aware that they detest bullies, and racists fit squarely into that category.
Griffin’s book was described by Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Ture) as “an excellent book—for whites.” Griffin himself agreed and ultimately scaled back his lecturing, realizing that it was disingenuous for a white man to be speaking for the black community when they had many powerful voices of their own. Yet in the 21st century, when the black power movement has become more or less a historical footnote in the consciousness of today’s young people, this book – along with some others I could recommend1 – is in some ways more germane now than it was then, precisely because the long road of the African American is no longer front and center in the American psyche, but the old attitudes remain, percolating just below the surface and in danger of surfacing should we as a society cease to be vigilant.
I recall that when I read this book for the first time, I wished fervently that I could get hold of the original Sepia articles which preceded the book’s publication. I wanted more pictures than the few small prints that adorned the paperback’s cover. I still wish that, but thanks to the miracle of the Internet, many photos of Griffin have surfaced. I have collected all the ones I can find, in the best possible resolution, and I present them here for their historical value. NB: I have no doubt these pictures are still copyright by someone, somewhere; if you own these images and have an issue with their being displayed here, a quick comment will be more than sufficient to have them removed.
John Howard Griffin
Griffin after a 1946 Air Force accident left him blind – he learned cane walking in the French Quarter of New Orleans, and when he returned there for his Sepia project he had to re-learn the quarter as a sighted man.
Taking large doses of medication designed for vitiligo patients and lying under a sun lamp, Griffin darkened his natural skin to a dark brown tanned base, which was then covered with stains on his face, legs and hands.
Griffin shaved his head, and applied coat after coat of stain, wiping off the excess until he could pass for black, and was even considered by many African-Americans with whom he associated to be one of the “darker Negroes.”
After his initial tour through the South, Griffin returned to the places he had written about with photographer Don Rutledge, show here in 1959, to chronicle his project in photographs. It looked odd to have a white photographer taking pictures of a black man, so the two of them had to present Rutledge as a tourist, with Griffin just “happening” into the picture at the right time.
“Here it was pennies and clutter and spittle on the curb. Here people walked fast to juggle the dimes, to make a deal, to find cheap liver or a tomato that was overripe. Here was the indefinable stink of despair.” (From Black Like Me)
While walking the French Quarter as a white man, Griffin looked for a way to enter black society. He often stopped at the shoeshine stand where Sterling Williams worked, and they chatted a number of times. After making the transition, he returned to Williams and confided in him; Williams and his partner, who owned the stand, provided a critical service to Griffin to help him make the initial shift into the world of a black man in New Orleans.
“I got off and began walking along Canal Street in the heart of town… I passed the same taverns and amusement places where the hawkers had solicited me on previous evenings. They were busy, urging the white men to come in and see the girls. The same smells of smoke and liquor and dampness poured out through half-open doors. Tonight they did not solicit me. Tonight they looked at me but did not see me.” (From Black Like Me).
Griffin appearing to look at a movie poster.
Griffin found that as a black man he was the recipient of rejection, abuse, and outright hatred at the hands of white people, whereas blacks treated him with great warmth. Passing through the same areas as a white man, he found the exact opposite; the white South looked elegant, refined and graceful, and all doors were open to him, but the black community regarded him with suspicion and treated him as an enemy.
After the publication of Griffin’s works and publicity about his experiment began to spread, at one point he was hanged in effigy from the center of Main Street in Mansfield, Texas where he lived. The dummy was later removed and placed in the dump under this sign. While hostility from some whites was intense once the project became known, the vast majority of letters sent to Griffin from all over the world were ones of support. Still, as a result of threats to his family, Griffin moved to Mexico for a time until the worst of the storm had blown over.
I keep this remarkable book on my shelf along with others, to remind me. So that I will never forget. Despite my cosmopolitan upbringing, I am a child of those times, and I must never allow a whisper of intolerance or prejudice to surface.
1 Other books which I read periodically include To Be A Slave, by Julius Lester; Death at an Early Age by Jonathan Kozol; and Black Boy by Richard Wright. Libraries bulge with other, more erudite works, but these speak to me, and help me to stay centered.