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.” It’s much more than a report, this book; it’s melancholic and disturbing and personal.

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.

 

 

 

In praise of “Writers & Co.” and Eleanor Wachtel

Today, a post in praise of long-time CBC program “Writers and Company” and its host Eleanor Wachtel, a woman I have come to trust without reservation for her wide-ranging eye on the world’s best literature and her exquisite interviews with the people who produce it. I’ve heard interviews with writers in a variety of formats, live or recorded or on television, and sometimes they’re too short to allow for more than sound bites or perhaps the interviewer hasn’t read the book, not thoroughly at least, or is talking too much, or you wish you could jump in and ask your question because the interviewer isn’t getting around to it! Wachtel’s interviews, however, are an hour long, and the conversation has room and it’s rich, it gets where I also wanted to go without my knowing in advance where that was. Continue reading

My “Serial” Binge

Last weekend, I binged on the wildly popular podcast series, “Serial”, in which Sarah Koenig and other producers and staff of “This American Life” investigate the case of Adnan Syed, who was convicted of the murder of Hae Min Lee in Baltimore in 1999 and who continues to claim his innocence.

I say “wildly popular” as if I’d been in the loop about the series while it unfolded last year, like some five million others anxiously waiting for the next installment (there are 12), but that’s not true. I’m aware of its reach after the fact. But even this much later, I’ll admit I feel a strange satisfaction in having participated in this phenomenal thing, to be in the know about it. Aren’t we just funny that way? There’s so much that I’m completely clued out about, which is inevitable and quite fine actually, and a great deal else on the “cultural” front that I access only tangentially. I’ve watched only half an episode of “Mad Men,” for example, one episode of “Downton Abbey,” none of “Orange is the New Black” or “Transparent” and on and on, which is not to discredit the accomplishments of these programs, nor to discredit people who are faithful fans of these series, but just to say that it’s possible to be aware of things, even know quite a bit about them, without actually listening to or watching or reading them.

But I digress. Continue reading