BOOK REPORTS FOR ADULTS: “Black Like Me” by John Howard Griffin
Renowned author Emilie Buchwald once said, “Children are made readers on the laps of their parents.” In our series Book Reports for Adults, we hope to make up for all those parents who turned on Seinfeld instead.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that…
Black Like Me by John Howard Griffin
Why You Should Read Black Like Me: Because it was written in a frightening period when our country was torn apart by hatred and no one was sure what to believe, so, yeah.
Book Size: Short. Originally published as a series of articles, it’s less characteristically a novel, more a work of remarkable, thorough journalism. It’s also designed to be accessible no matter which section you happen to flip to, and very little background research is necessary to get started.
The Book Report, And What I Learned:
The Plot, Mostly Spoiler-Free:
It’s 1961, and Mississippi is “the most lied-about state in the Union.”
Sure, outside agitators (probably commies) are attempting to stir up the state’s black population into a pointless movement to demand civil rights they don’t really want, but really, everything is fine in Mississippi. Black people and white people actually get along there just fine. Everyone knows their place, yet is content with their lot. Everything is fine. Just fine. Really fine.
That’s what the white population of Mississippi insists anyway.
Pressured by both Southern black activists and sympathetic Northern whites like Albert Einstein about segregation, discrimination, and denial of basic civil rights, the white assemblage of the Magnolia State are mulishly doubling down, insisting louder than ever that their system of segregation is ultimately for the benefit of everyone who lives there; those Northerners just don’t understand how it works.
John Howard Griffin, the author of Black Like Me, recalls one article making that very point:
Many sincerely think the Negro, because of his very Negro-ness, could not possibly measure up to white standards in work performance. I read recently where one of them said that equality of education and job opportunity would be an even greater tragedy for [African-Americans]. He said it would quickly prove to [them] that [they] can’t measure up — disillusion [them] by showing that [they] are, in fact, inferior.
African-Americans, of course, have been telling a different story for decades. They point to the white-controlled justice system that lets white people slip through the system, getting away with murdering African Americans pretty much without penalty. They point to Jim Crow Laws that make employment and housing difficult to find and thereby keep them in poverty, and rigged poll tests that keep them from voting to change things.
In many cases, this lack of communication springs from some very fundamental and intransigent beliefs that white Americans cling to about exactly why social inequality is rooted in racism. A ‘highly educated young man’ introduced midway through the book asserts to our author, with total confidence, that all the social studies he’s read prove that African-Americans suffer not from oppression, but from living in a culture (of their own making), which hobbles their ability to function in American society.
Griffin subsequently explains the problem with this viewpoint to him:
“[Those studies] don’t deal with any basic difference in human nature between black and white […] They only study the effects of the environment on human nature. […] These characteristics don’t spring from whiteness or blackness, but from a man’s conditioning.”
In fact, it’s this very thought that drove Griffin to perform a drastic experiment…
Financed by the African-American founded magazine Sepia, Griffin proposed to travel through the South, visiting public spaces and finding jobs and places to live along the way. He would use the same name and the same work history. He would act in the same way and carry the same amount of money he always did. He would carry with him the same background, the same attitudes, the same strong foundation of education and family he’d grown up with.
The only thing he would change (though a course of medication and skin treatments) would be the color of his skin:
Griffin’s point was very simple: if (as the conventional wisdom that the young student was so eager to quote and cite went) black people were suffering simply because of a poor educational system, a lack of family values, and a history of poverty, then this new John Howard Griffin should do fine in the South, since he suffered from none of those things.
If, on the other hand, no good education, strong family foundation, or distinguished career could save a man with dark skin from prejudice, violence, and the crippling effects of segregation and oppression, then things might not be so fine after all…
John Howard Griffin, pre-transformation. A writer with several books and a life spent in war zones and far-off places under his belt, Griffin had retired to a reasonably secure life in Texas with his wife and small children before beginning his ‘experiment.’ He was a deeply religious man, whose life was transformed when he lost his sight at a young age and then miraculously regained it nearly ten years later. The fact that his most famous work is not only tied to moral justice but to the effects of images and visual impressions is (probably) not an accident.
John Howard Griffin, post-transformation. Even though he was prepared for the possibility, the corrosive effects of the isolation, danger, and despair that accompany his experiment take Griffin by surprise, and leave him a different person. Apart from the fear and depression, his transformation drives home how detached he feels from an America he thought he knew. He’s also amazed at the enormous power other people’s expectations have on his actions, often surprising himself with the submissive, beaten-down things he hears coming out of his own mouth. Most of all, he is left full of rage, and in awe of the restraint of the people around him who must feel like this all the time.
The Themes and Ideas:
Loveship, hateship, allyship:
It’s been a long time since 1961, and in that time, this book’s legacy has grown a lot more complicated. Bruce Watson noted some of those contradictions in his retrospective on the work’s fiftieth anniversary in Smithsonian Magazine. On one hand, he quotes Robert Bonazzi, author of Man in the Mirror: John Howard Griffin and the Story of Black Like Me, who extols its many virtues:
[Black Like Me]‘s a useful historical document about the segregated era, which is still shocking to younger readers. It’s also a truthful journal in which Griffin admits to his own racism, with which white readers can identify and perhaps begin to face their own denial of prejudice. Finally, it’s a well-written literary text that predates the ‘nonfiction novel’ of Mailer, Capote, Tom Wolfe and others.”
On the other, he quotes black civil rights activist Stokely Carmichael — who very succinctly sums up its problematic place in history as a work about black life written by a white person:
“[Black Like Me] is an excellent book—for whites.”
(If you find it problematic that this book about black life is written by a white author, you should see the modern versions, which are doubly creepy).
That tension, though, is one of the things that make this book so interesting: it starts a conversation about exactly what role allies should and shouldn’t play in the struggle against oppression.
It’s actually a problem that troubled Griffin, too. In the afterword of the anniversary edition, he tells a story about being invited to give a talk about his experiences for a prominent organization and discovering that only one African-American guest had been asked to attend. Asked what he thought about Griffin’s talk, the black audience member rightly pointed out how the experiment, while edifying, didn’t seem to have translated into meaningful changes for the affected community. He was then nearly driven from the building by the same crowd that had been applauding Griffin half an hour earlier for saying exactly the same thing. Not long after that event, Griffin gave up speaking on the subject entirely, reasoning that it was “absurd for a white man to presume to speak for black people when they have superlative voices of their own.”
It’s fascinating watching Griffin struggle with this problem, particularly because he never finds a good solution to it.
Racism… Racism Never Changes.
One can’t help but note how familiar the racist rhetoric Griffin encounters feels, once you get past the proper nouns. It’s echoed in all varieties of oppression today: anti-LGBTQ, anti-Muslim, anti-woman, anti-poor; you name it.
Even anti-black racism, which has at least gone through superficial changes in the time since this book’s publication, is recognizable at its core. The African-Americans detailed through Griffin’s travels are concerned with a justice system that won’t punish people who harm them, with how to protest and organize without being discounted as violent thugs, and with conspiracies to frame their organizations in scandals in order to silence them. The political changes they are fighting for may be different, but the challenges they face in order to fight, and the forces arrayed to stop them, are eerily similar.
Early on in his experiment, Griffin identifies a phenomenon he calls the hate stare — a way certain white strangers have of looking at him that elucidates the depth of their revulsion. He’s amazed at the power of the hate stare, and how deeply it affects him: there are days when he can’t even leave his hotel room for fear that someone will gaze upon him that way.
Indeed, an enormous portion of this book is compounded with an examination of what a film critic might call ‘gaze.’ Griffin becomes hyper-aware of being looked at and analyzed by hundreds of people wherever he goes; people who see him as a problem, an object of pity, a threat, a joke, or an abstract concept, yet no one who simply sees him as a person. By changing the color of his skin, Griffin loses his ability to blend into a crowd, and is thus forced to be, unceasingly, a representative of his pretended race instead.
In one sequence, he talks about being picked up by a series of drivers while hitchhiking, and getting trapped in one horrible conversation after another. Some want to test out their sociological theories on him, some want to snicker at his lack of education, and some just want to hear the gritty details of his sex life. Everyone has a theory about who he is, derived from racial assumptions.
The more of these conversations he has, the more they start to blur together into one big, objectifying magnifying glass he can never get out from under.
A white man travels through the Jim Crow South disguised as a black man for an unpleasant, though ultimately revealing, look at how racism functions and how it changes the people caught in its headlights.
Part to Quote So People Will Think You’ve Read It:
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. You see a kind of insanity, something so obscene the very obscenity of it (rather than its threat) terrifies you. It was so new I could not take my eyes from the man’s face. I felt like saying: ‘What in God’s name are you doing to yourself?’
Side Effects of Reading Room May Include:
Feeling weird about being American, but if you weren’t already there, you haven’t been paying attention.
If you are looking for…
…books about how race is a construct, try Incognegro by Mat Johnson, which is a black-and-white graphic novel (and mystery), where a light-skinned black journalist goes undercover to investigate lynchings in the American South in the 1930s. As a black man pretending to be white, the main character is in many ways a foil to Griffin. The novel deals with the same questions of perception and “passing” as another race, but the visual element to the storytelling adds a whole new dimension that Griffin would have been sure to appreciate.
…books about the way the more things change, the more they stay the same, try Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, which is a disturbing investigation into ways the Jim Crow system in this country has managed to mutate into new and horrible forms, but never die out. She focuses mostly on the War on Drugs, mass incarceration, and the way that politics conspire to drag down America’s black population. Good for people who aren’t already upset enough about the current political situation in America and need something to really keep them up at night with rage.
…books about how segregated education is still very much a thing, try Jonathan Kozol’s The Shame of a Nation: The Restoration of Apartheid Schooling in America, which examines the educational system in much the same way that Alexander’s book examines the prison system, and comes to some depressingly similar conclusions about it. Good for grizzly bears, Betsy DeVos, and grizzly bears that might want to eat Betsy DeVos.
…something to wash the bad taste of all this sadness and oppression out of your mouth, try Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter from Birmingham City Jail, which is exactly what it sounds like. Like everything Dr. King writes, it’s a masterpiece of positivity, full of hope for the future while still standing firm against enormous odds. Plus, if you read it, you’ll be able to use the quote “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” without having to admit that you read it on a fridge magnet.
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