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.

 

 

 

‘Mennofasto’ for a new era: Miriam Toews’ Women Talking

Back in 2009, a man whose name I won’t reveal, because he wouldn’t want me to, persuaded me and several other Winnipeg women to respond to what was then coming out in the news, the so-called “ghost rapes” of Mennonite women in a colony in Bolivia. Turns out the rapes were dreadfully real, not ghostly at all; rendered unconscious by anesthetic spray, the women had been raped by men within their own community. The police were eventually called in, and eight men were arrested. I confess that I was reluctant to get involved; in spite of a growing amount of credible reportage, I felt on distant and shaky ground with the context and facts. Nevertheless, my braver friends and I planned and led an evening of prayer and lament for the women, with monies raised going to a women’s shelter in their vicinity. It was our best way of drawing attention, of demonstrating solidarity, even if the victims might never hear of it.

downloadBut I don’t think any of us ever thought it was enough. When I heard, last spring, that Miriam Toews had written a book reacting to these events, I was excited — excited to read her “take” on it since I greatly admire her writing, and excited that her status as an internationally recognized author might bring wider attention — dare I say further prayer, lament, perhaps even solace? — to the women.

Well, the book is out and I’ve read it, and it’s solace alright, but far more than that, it’s a manifesto, born out of vulnerability, complication, and strength, and wonderfully distilled to the essence of what the novel’s women want. A manifesto not only for them, in my opinion, but for women period. In other words, it carries universal heft, even if pointedly specific.

For an example of the specific, and perhaps my favourite laugh of the novel (in spite of pain and anger, there’s a lot of laughter here): after the eight women, who’ve assembled in a hayloft while the colony men are away to the city to post bail for the accused, have rehearsed at some length their options about what to do next, they agree on three things they want. (This happens too far into the book not to be a spoiler, so I’ll be mum on what they are.) One of the women, Ona, seems in reverie about the consensus they’ve reached.

“This is the beginning of a new era, she says. This is our manifesto. (She says “manifesto” in English but with her Mennonite inflection it sounds like “mennofasto.”)

Back-tracking: as far as what the book’s about, it’s what the title implies, mainly women talking. Post the rapes. Since the women are illiterate, teacher August Epp, who’s also in love with Ona, is asked to keep “minutes” of the meetings. The talk is what extended talk can be, revealing of personality, digressive, argumentative, supportive, but there’s urgency here, for the men will soon come back and the women must decide what to do. Theological urgency too, about whether they’re animals (they’ve been treated as such; the spray is an animal anesthetic), about forgiveness, and much more. The novel is mostly talk, yes, but there are turns and surprises, and talk coalesces into action that feels, for the reader, exactly right.

Let me back up some more, to another confession. I found the novel/narrator wooden at first and experienced some of the frustration I’ve felt occasionally with Toews’ Mennonite stories, where bits seem drawn from anywhere in Mennonitentum, a borrowing that makes the group represented seem not entirely consistent to itself. (I remember this same frustration with Rhoda Janzen’s Mennonite in a Little Black Dress). It’s a problem of me also being Mennonite, I suppose, too aware of subgroups and nuances and how we imagine the “others.”) So I closed the book some ways in, took a week’s break, lectured myself about this being a novel and not journalism, and began again, suspending disbelief into the fiction of the story — and therefore into the truth of it — and sure enough, it was quite as remarkable as I’d wished it to be. It’s full of layers, teases for a reader’s own digressions within the conversation. Narrator August, for example, whose mother’s name is Monica, who once stole pears, a kind of Saint Augustine? His paean to Ona, “the soul of Molotschna,” her name a version of Anna perhaps, or meaning “graceful” in Hebrew, or are we to think of Blake, or all of the above?

It’s a big story, this narrative towards manifesto, but crazily and specifically Mennonite too — big and unsplintered. As August notes in the discussion of the mennofasto:

“Well, it’s not quite precisely put, Salome says. But it sounds perfect to me.”