Griffin’s book still relevent

Black Like Me: How a White American Travelled Through the Segregated Deep South of the 1950s Disguised as a Black Man John Howard Griffin, Souvenir Press, 2009, 241 pages, $39.99 (pb)

Review by Phil Shannon

John Howard Griffin, a white Texan, was shocked in 1959 when he saw the face in the mirror, “the face and shoulders of a stranger — a fierce, bald, very dark Negro”, glaring back at him.

Griffin, as he recounts in Black Like Me, had decided to study what would be different in his world were he to change from the white John Howard Griffin to the Black John Howard Griffin.

He ingested a pigment-changing medicine and used intense ultraviolet radiation to speed up the darkening of his skin. He shaved his head bald and became a black man for three months.

His shock on seeing his new black face forced him to recognise the depths of his own prejudices before he then went on to learn, in very direct and personal ways, the depths of prejudice in broader white society in New Orleans, Alabama, Mississippi and Georgia.

Griffin passed the same venues on Canal Street, New Orleans, where touts had “solicited me on previous evenings, busy urging white men in to come and see the girls. Tonight they did not solicit me. Tonight they looked at me but did not see me”.

When not invisible, as when working on a shoeshine stand, he was treated as a machine, as though he had “no human existence whatsoever”.

The third way of looking at a Black American was the “hate stare”, pure, malevolent animosity which redoubled in intensity if he ever complain about not being treated right — this was “stepping out of line”, being “sassy”, not “knowing his place”.

Hate language was as confronting as the hate stare. “I learned that in a jumble of unintelligible talk, the word ‘nigger’ leaps out with electric clarity … Always it stings. ‘Hey nigger, you can’t go in there’. ‘Hey nigger, you can’t drink here’. ‘We don’t serve niggers’”.

When he moved back into white society, he became once more a first-class citizen. “All doors to cafes, rest rooms, libraries, movies, concerts, schools and churches were suddenly open to me”. He could “take a seat beside white men and have the waitress smile at me”.

He could “order food and have it served — a miracle”. Police went from being distrustful and threatening to being affable. Blacks went from being friendly to fearful.

Griffin’s observations are not entirely without hope. Although tension hung in the air in the Deep South, the first shoots of black activism were evident. In Montgomery, Alabama, inspired by Martin Luther King, Jr, a “determined spirit of passive resistance” is felt.

Blacks in this city “will not back down”. They will “take the abuse stoically, so that [their] children will not have to take it in the future”.

Griffin’s diary on his race experiment became a bestseller in 1961 and enraged white racists. Ten years later, the Ku Klux Klan beat him mercilessly with chains and left him for dead on a back road in Mississippi.

He was heartened, however, that many Deep South whites were supportive and backed the civil rights campaign. Griffin contributed to this movement for more than a decade with 1200 lectures on his experiences.

Griffin was part of the underground resistance in France during WWII and helped smuggle Jewish children to England. His social justice ideals caused him to ask what it is like to be the “Other” — “I could have been a Jew in Germany, a Mexican in a number of states, or a member of any ‘inferior’ group”, or, as he briefly became, a Black American in the Deep South.

Griffin died in 1979, leaving behind a unique experiment in the persecuted experience of the Black “Other”, and a valuable contribution to overcoming it.