Re-reading “Black Like Me”

I read John Howard Griffin’s Black Like Me, published in 1961, as a teenager. It affected me deeply. The details have disappeared, but the memory of its impact remains. We lived in a homogeneously white and rural community in Canada, but Griffin’s experience, albeit brief, as a white man who changed his colour via medicine and stain and thus discovered what it was like to be black in the segregated American South worked to inform and strengthen what I believed about equality and justice. In those years, as the Civil Rights movement took hold, it all seemed closer than it was geographically.

download (2)I recently re-read the book, in a 50th anniversary edition that includes additional material about Griffin’s life and work. Once more, I found it a powerful story. Over 50 years some language around racism has changed, and I suppose today he would probably be roundly criticized for “appropriation.” Certainly it’s a question to me how much it would be possible to “incarnate” another’s experience, but I have no doubt that the switch of pigment alone occasioned profound and authentic observations, and in this way, Griffin became an important in-between figure at the time. In fact, the message of the book could be summed as: I’m the same person except for the colour of my skin, yet everything about me now has become of lesser worth.

The book sold widely and Griffin had many opportunities to speak and work for better relations and understanding. Eventually he recognized that it was time for his voice to make way for Blacks, they needed to be heard speaking for themselves.

I had not remembered, if I ever knew, that Griffin was blind for a decade, only to have his sight return almost miraculously, or that he was connected with Thomas Merton and also wrote on spirituality, or that he served in the French Resistance. He mentions the latter somewhat in passing, comparing the fear he felt while black and interacting with whites, like “the nagging, focusless terror we felt in Europe when Hitler began his marches, the terror of talking with Jews (and our deep shame of it.)” It is this deep shame, expressed so honestly while experiencing “Black” as a white man, that struck me in the re-reading. When Griffin first looked at his transformed self after his regimen of medication, shaving, and stain, he was appalled. “I could feel no companionship with this new person. I did not like the way he looked.” This book is much more than a report; it’s a melancholic and disturbing and personal witness.

That my first reading noticed the plight of the Negro, as s/he was then called, and my re-reading the inner shaking and shame of the author, reminds me not only of the insidiousness of racism but how much growth is required within me, and how slowly awareness happens. Not so many years after reading Black Like Me for the first time, I was teaching Sunday School in a Mennonite church. I think it was a kindergarten age class. I showed a picture supplied by the curriculum of Jesus with children of different races. One boy said, “I don’t like the black boy. My dad says if you touch a black person you turn black.” I can’t recall how I responded but I was horrified at what the boy was being taught. Now it occurs to me that I paid no attention to the fact that the Jesus of those pictures was light-haired and blue-eyed, his skin white, instead of the brown-skinned and black-haired Mediterranean Jew he would have been.

 

 

 

9 thoughts on “Re-reading “Black Like Me”

  1. And to go one step further – many Canadian natives also experience being viewed differently based solely on the colour of their skin. Canadian children were not typically raised to look down on the negro but on the native Indians. And it goes back all the way to the first Canadian literature (for example, “Wacousta” by John Richardson) in which Indians were called “savages” and portrayed as less than human.

    • Yes, so true. I hope we can keep growing in our awareness and make a difference in our own environment, wherever that might be. — I find it very significant that there has been a burst of indigenous writing in the last years that allow us to enter their experience and hear their voices.

  2. I remember reading that book when we were in Elkhart, at the AMB Seminary in preparation for going to Congo. We encountered black people there, but in an entirely different context than we did in Congo. There I often wished I was not in my white skin because I was “the other.”
    I also remember telling the women (Wives of the Evangelical Protestant Seminary students in Kinshasa that Jesus was not white. They were surprised. I also said he was not black, but he was somewhere in between or part of all of us. They loved that!

  3. I remember reading that book when we were in Elkhart, at the AMB Seminary in preparation for going to Congo. We encountered black people there, but in an entirely different context than we did in Congo. There I often wished I was not in my white skin because I was “the other.”
    I also remember telling the women (Wives of the Evangelical Protestant Seminary students in Kinshasa that Jesus was not white. They were surprised. I also said he was not black, but he was somewhere in between or part of all of us. They loved that!

  4. I also remember teaching a Sunday School class. The kids were regular church-goers. . . confident (smug?) 10/11 year olds. I had cut out a bunch of magazine heads of different people and spread them out on the floor (we were sitting in a circle). Pick a friend, I told them. They did. . . fighting over some of the faces. The ones left on the floor—coloured people. And with this I tried to teach them about racism and discrimination. They surprised themselves. . . and me.

    I live in an insular, white community out here in Charleswood. I’m afraid my kids weren’t exposed much to ‘other.’ This I regret.

  5. Yes, that book plus “The Emancipation of Robert Sadler” were two books that supported my inner dialogue that all men are equal – something that was not endorsed by my “Christian” family and community.

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