John Howard Griffin, Black Like Me

John Howard Griffin's book Black Like Me has been on my radar for a long time, an embarrassingly long time, really, and I'd almost been guilted into seeking it out late this semester by a student in my second-year writing class who said it was just the thing for our course. Imagine, therefore, my delight at finding an elderly paperback copy at the recent United Way book sale - and my greater delight at finding a hardcover on the very next table so I could get that instead!

And then I devoured the book, reading almost all of it during the two hours that my first-year lit students were writing their exam. It's written in journal form, so it's a seriously easy read, but frankly that enhances its impact, and impact it had a-plenty in 1960 and 1961 when Black Like Me appeared. Once he began doing interviews and writing articles after the experience, Griffin was hung in effigy on Main Street in his hometown, and a cross was burned at night on the grounds of the town's African-American school. On the other hand, he was interviewed by anyone who was anyone, the book instantly became an touchstone for the civil rights movement, and a movie documenting Griffin's experience appeared just three years later.

But why?

Basically, Griffin underwent medical treatment, including ingesting the drug Oxsoralen, exposing himself to intense UV rays, and applying stain, to look black (shaving his head, too). He did this in New Orleans, and then spent most of the next five weeks - November into December of 1959 - travelling the South as a black man. His intent was to document precisely what it felt like to be black, as he had decided that no white person could truly understand the life of a black person. He had read the studies and books, written articles, performed countless interviews, but he had come to the realization that he couldn't possibly understand.

So he became black. And he was appalled by how he had to live. It makes for horrifying reading, truly. Nothing bad happens to him - at least, there's no crisis - but he's overtly threatened with great frequency, and he's subjected openly to a deep and incomprehensible hatred. The accessibility of his writing gives the book incredible impact, and I'm not the least bit surprised that it generated such intense emotions

After having such a difficult time with Norah Vincent's Self-Made Man recently, I'm trying to be skeptical about Black Like Me. After all, I felt that in her brief period living as a man, Vincent - presumably for unconscious reasons - went out of her way to find atypical circumstances, ones where she would have been at serious risk of physical harm if she was found out, rather than finding more typical circumstances where she wasn't physically endangered. To me this weakened the book significantly, making it about Vincent's psychology rather than about the phenomenon she was trying to study.

But I can't be skeptical. The concerns I have about Vincent's project are irrelevant to Griffin's project. Admittedly I can't know what life was like for an African-American man in 1959, and I do know something about life as a white man in the early years of the 21st century, but it lines up so well with statistical and economic data, and with African-American memoirs, and there's such tremendous potency in the book's images. The book was never credibly undercut, either, and that means something to me as well.

In short, wow.


fiona-h said…
I loved it too. I think it's been 20 years since I read it, though. Probably time to do so again.
Hugh said…
Jan 18,2009 New York Times Sunday Opinion column "White Like Me" by Frank Rich recalls this book's impact on him when he read it in high school. As a young college instructor, I had read Griffin's book (and later written about it), and been his host/driver for a day, deeply influenced by this man's integrity and charisma. Previously, he had written a novel ("The Devil Rides Outside") which is also well worth reading.
richard said…
Funny how the links take us, Hugh - from the Grey Lady of the Times to me! I'm pleased to hear that Griffin was as impressive in his private persona as he was in this book.

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