Black Like Me by John Howard Griffin
This book might be my final non-fiction read of the summer. Of course I’ve found myself browsing quite a few books on fiction writing, but I won’t bore you with the details of those here. Well, if I do, it definitely won’t be for official review purposes. My boyfriend said that this isn’t the review that he would have done. He would have taken it “there” and got all deep on ya’ll. But me…I like to entertain…I like to laugh…and most importantly…I like to hate. 🙂
“The Negro. The South. These are details. The real story is the universal one of men who destroy the souls and bodies of other men (and in the process destroy themselves) for reasons neither really understands. It is the story of the persecuted, the defrauded, the feared and detested. I could have been a Jew in Germany, a Mexican in a number of states, or a member of any “inferior” group. Only the details would have differed. The story would be the same.” – John Howard Griffin
John Howard Griffin’s Bio: John Howard Griffin (1920-1980), writer, the second son of four children of John Walter and Lena May (Young) Griffin, was born in Dallas, Texas, on June 16, 1920. His mother was a classically trained pianist who taught for thirty years in the Fort Worth area, and his father was a fine Irish tenor and a radio personality as a younger man. His family influenced Griffin’s lifelong love for both music and literature. He attended R. L. Paschal High School in Fort Worth until he left the United States at fifteen in search of a classical education. He entered the Lycée Descartes in Tours, France, completed studies in French and literature at the University of Poitiers, and studied medicine at the École de Médecine…
Beginning at age nineteen, he worked as a medic in the French Resistance army, evacuating Austrian Jews to the port of St. Nazaire and to safety from the Nazis. He served thirty-nine months in the United States Army Air Corps in the South Seas. He was decorated for bravery and was disabled in the fighting during World War II. He lost his sight from 1946 until 1957. During his twelve years of blindness he wrote five novels (three unpublished) and began a journal in 1950 that had reached twenty volumes at the time of his death. (Read full bio from source)
Book: Black Like Me
Publisher: New American Library (2003 Edition)
Original Publication Year: 1960
Pages: 200 (including Afterword)
Opening Lines: For years the idea had haunted me, and that night it returned more insistently than ever. If a white man became a Negro in the Deep South, what adjustments would he have to make? What is it like to experience discrimination based on skin color, something over which one has no control?
Reason for selection: I’ve wanted to read this book since high school, but always found something else to read instead. My boyfriend purchased a copy for me and suggested that I finally satisfy my goal.
Cover art: I guess with a title like Black Like Me, most people can figure out what the book is about without much creativity from the publishers. “Let’s just throw the black version of Griffin on the cover or something. Anybody have any other ideas?”
Book Overview: Life was hard for Black folks in the 1950s South. Things were so bad for us that it took a white man, John Howard Griffin, to prove it. Instead of smearing on a coat of blackface and changing his name to Tyrone, Griffin goes all out and consults a dermatologist “as to the best method of darkening [his] skin” (6). Putting his health at risk, he also decides to take more than the recommended amount of an unstated medication and tans. Miraculously, within a week’s time the desired black skin appears. Unlike other minorities in this country, Griffin chooses to become “Negro” and agrees to write several articles for Sepia magazine based on his experiences.
Griffin’s stated purpose was to find out if the United Sates truly had “second-class citizens and what their plight was” (2). Of course interviewing various individuals in the southern states wouldn’t garner him the honest answers he was in search of. In six weeks time, through the senses of a black-white man, readers are provided the racist sentiments, stereotypical questions, hateful glares, and overall Jim Crow experience of the South.
Although it was noted that Griffin wanted to help blacks, in my opinion, this book wasn’t written for blacks. This book was written to confront white people of the time with a mirror of shame. Nevertheless, what I found interesting was how willing Griffin was to tell most black people which he encountered that he was really a white man. When he did so, it was like he wanted a pat on the back. Like he wanted black people to tell him thanks. I can think of very few white people which he provided this same information to. In my opinion, there were no real threats to his life; a reality that most blacks considered a possibility. Despite the lack of real danger while playing the role of a real-life Negro, Griffin somehow still manages to lose his manhood and self-esteem. It is therefore no surprise that Griffin couldn’t wait to rub the black off. He had to get back to his White life and all the privileges that came with it. Most importantly, Griffin was ready for the accolades that he would receive for attempting such a daring feat—he even discusses the interviews and praise during the last few pages of the book. Griffin also noted that whites weren’t pleased with his experiment and harassed him until he departed the country with his family for several months (it’s only fair to provide that detail).
Yet, was Griffin able to accomplish what he initially set out to do? Remember his goal wasn’t to expose southern racism, but rather to see if black people were truly second-class citizens. So did he demonstrate that blacks had little or no legal/civil rights or economic opportunities? Did he paint a graphic picture of black mistreatment in a variety of places and situations? Did he discuss the institutional structures which prevented southern blacks from even considering the American dream? The real question is, in my opinion, can one truly have discovered these things in just six weeks time while constantly traveling back and forth between states?
For the most part, Griffin played things safe. True, he had a wife and family and couldn’t get too outrageous to prove his point–but I needed more. There was never a point where Griffin was nearly lynched, chased down the street by an angry mob, or “put in his place” by whites. It seemed like anytime he was spoken to or looked at a certain way, these details became just something else that he could make a note of for his article or journal.
The Negatives: My next point could actually be added on to the positives, but unfortunately I have to place it here. It did appear as though Griffin had a real understanding of the struggles of black people in the South. Unfortunately, I just didn’t understand how he could jump into this black skin for a few weeks and suddenly be able to relate to what the black man thought and felt. Are black people that simple? Is the black experience that simple? Was his knowledge based on books that he read? Conversations he had? I just don’t believe that within a six week time frame that he would have all the understanding that he presented in conversations with whites.
I constantly found myself questioning whether he could have still acquired the information he desired through other means. It was funny that Griffin felt like if he was white, he wouldn’t be able to simply interview blacks to get the information he desired, yet he was so willing to announce to certain black people that he was really a white man. My point is, why trust black people to offer you advice or praise, but not trust them to tell you the truth about their experience? How would an ethnographic work have differed? Was his extreme method truly the only way?
Notable Excerpt: One of the more interesting parts of the novel featured Griffin accepting rides from white strangers at night. During these moments, white males would question him concerning sexual matters, flings with black women, and the size of black male genitals. In the following excerpt, Griffin sets the record straight when confronted with the point that black people can do better, but choose not to (an idea that I’m sure some people still agree with to this day).
“The Negro may not understand exactly how, but he knows one thing–the only way out of his tragedy is through education, training. Thousands of them sacrifice everything to get the education, to prove once and for all that the Negro’s capacity for learning, for accomplishment, is equal to that of any other man–that the pigment has nothing to do with degrees of intelligence, talent or virtue. This isn’t just wishful thinking. It’s been proved conclusively in every field…Southern newspapers print every rape, attempted rape, suspected rape and ‘maybe rape,’ but outstanding accomplishment is not considered newsworthy. Even the Southern Negro has little chance to know this, since he reads the same slanted reports in the newspapers” (93).
The Film Version: I’ve never seen the film version of this book. The center movie poster makes it appear as though the black experience is similar to some sort of horror movie. Is that a look of fear on his face? Even the quote is funny, “…Now I know what it feels like to be BLACK!” Like all white people are just dying to know what the BLACK experience entails (maybe they do though).
Maybe if this study is modernized, someone will consider cutting the “Black time” from six weeks to three. Griffin already proved that it most certainly wouldn’t take an entire year of being black to see what this life is like, right? After all, that’s what BET is for (I’m being sarcastic of course).
Other Publishings by John Howard Griffin:
Overall Rating: 3 out of 5. Was it worth the read? Yes. Was I feeling Griffin’s desire to supposedly help black people? No. Again, did he accomplish his goal of figuring out whether blacks were really second-class citizens? Not as well as he could have, but I understand you can only do so much in six weeks. Throw in a lynching, a mob chase, and some real white southern racist action and this rating might go a little higher.
And I conclude with what Black Like Me isn’t–nor will it ever be. I’ll leave it up to you to interpret what that might mean.
Back to the world of fiction books. Happy Reading!