Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Black Like Me

When John Howard Griffin made the audacious proposal to his publisher over fifty years ago, many thought he had lost his mind. But he, and most especially, his family, had a thirst for justice that had to be quenched and the courage to follow it through. Griffin met with several dermatologists in New Orleans before settling on one who agreed to help him. You see, John Griffin, a white man from Texas, wanted to walk a mile in a black man's shoes, reporting on what it was really like to be a black southerner in 1959 in the greatest democracy on earth.

Holing up in a hotel room, he submitted to drug treatments, enhanced by hours under a sunlamp and a skin dye, that would eventually transform his melanin to a deep, rich brown. He shaved his head in order to hide the straight hair that might be a giveaway. It all sounds incredible but, in fact, it worked. Out he went into the streets of New Orleans that only a few weeks previously had welcomed him and his wallet with open arms. Now he had trouble finding a bathroom, a drink of water, or a seat on public transportation.

Traveling throughout Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia, Griffin immersed himself in black life and quickly learned that there was a separate way of speaking and acting that had to be cultivated if he didn't want to incur the wrath of everyday white folks. Eye contact was to be avoided, a certain reticence in body language behooved him. Over the weeks of his experiment he became heartsick to his very soul at the unfounded hatred he encountered from people of his own race, so much so that he had to take a break from his life as a black man after only six weeks, visiting a Trappist retreat to pray and rejuvenate.

After only six weeks! Can you imagine? Have you ever wondered what it would be like to live in another's skin? I have to tell you that I had my consciousness raised fairly early in my life and I'm so grateful to my parents for allowing me the freedom to leave home and spread my wings.

 In the summer of 1969, against their better judgment, they agreed to my moving from the idyllic Berkshire County town that Don is so in love with, to Washington, DC, for the summer between my junior and senior years of college. Jobless, but optimistic, four of us gals sublet an apartment on Connecticut Ave. and hit the pavement looking for work. My buddy Sandy and I ended up, after failing at selling encyclopedias door to door, training to waitress at a Howard Johnson's restaurant in the heart of the ghetto, an area that ended up on fire later that summer when injustice and resentment ignited a conflagration.

We were the only white people in the restaurant - customers or staff. We were the only white people on the bus that took us home, exhausted, greasy, disheartened, at the end of the day. We also knew that we only had to do this for a couple of months. The women, young and old, we interacted with every day had this work to look forward to for the rest of their lives. Did they resent us? How could they not? Did we feel it? Maybe so, it's hard to remember. I only know that I felt we deserved every bit of their contempt when we quit after a few weeks when a "friend of a friend" found us office jobs in the Interior Dept.

John Howard Griffin never really recovered from his experience back in 1959. If Black Like Me isn't still required reading for every high school kid today, it should be. This book isn't dated, not one iota. Though prejudice is much more subtle today it is still shockingly rampant and often comes from people and places one would least expect.

Griffin returned home to his family in Texas, published his articles, appeared on Dave Garroway and Mike Wallace, and was hung in effigy in his own hometown of Mansfield. His parents received death threats, he eventually had to move his wife and kids to a secret location, and finally ended up living in Mexico, almost one hundred years after the so-called Emancipation Proclamation.

We read for so many reasons but this is certainly one of them. We must read so that we never forget.


Anonymous said...

Simply put: Sally is one of the best book reviewers on the web!

dschirtzfl said...

I heartily agree!.