Review by Jill Moore
I finished Black Like Me by John Howard Griffin on the morning of November 8, 2016. The day stands out because of the election and all of the information that swirled around it. As it turns out, it was a bad day for me. What I had read in a book published in 1961 was not so different from the news I was seeing in my Facebook feed. It has taken me more than a week to process my thoughts on that day and this book.
John Howard Griffin was born in Texas. He studied music and medicine in France and joined the French Resistance in 1939 at age 19, where he helped to transport Austrian Jews to safety in England. Griffin joined the Army and spent 1943-1944 as the only European-American (read: white guy) on Nuni, one of the Solomon Islands, where his assignment was to study the local culture. These two pieces of his personal history form the basis of his interest in and writings surrounding ethnology.
In 1959, during the height of the civil rights movement, amidst the sit-ins and protests, Griffin became interested in “the plight of Negroes” in the deep South. He approached the publisher of Sepia Magazine, one of the first publications dedicated to the culture and achievements of black Americans, and shared an idea he had for a social experiment/investigative reporting story. His plan was to integrate himself as a “Negro” in the South, using treatments consisting of drugs, sunlamps, and skin creams to change his color to dark brown. Sepia decided to back his journey in exchange for the rights of first publication.
The book is based on Griffin’s written journals and chronicles the six weeks he spent traveling through Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, South Carolina and Georgia as a “black man”. His first-hand accounts of his treatment by Southern whites is heartbreaking. The alienation, fear, and degradation he writes about are palpable. If a white man today tried to pass as a black man, it would be seen in a completely different way. But Griffin’s decision to bring to light the discrimination and suffering of black Americans during this volatile time period — when very few white people were willing to speak out against racism – and when black authors were almost unheard of — was groundbreaking and brave.
I think it’s important that Black Like Me be viewed through the lens of history. Today, in 2016 with racism still raging all around us, some might see this as a sure sign of white privilege — that a man could simply “change his skin color” and that would allow him to feel what the victims of racism feel; that a man could live in that world for only six weeks and that would give him a credible voice. But, taken in the context of 1959, John Howard Griffin was a pioneer. He began the conversation. It is our job to continue it.
To amplify the gut-wrenching force of the book is the poem by Langston Hughes, from which the title is taken.
To fling my arms wide
In some place of the sun,
To whirl and to dance
Till the white day is done.
Then rest at cool eveningBeneath a tall treeWhile night comes on gently,Dark like me—That is my dream!To fling my arms wideIn the face of the sun,Dance! Whirl! Whirl!Till the quick day is done.Rest at pale evening . . .A tall, slim tree . . .Night coming tenderlyBlack like me.Langston Hughes, “Dream Variations”
Without a doubt, this is a difficult book to read, but I believe one that is well worth your time and heartache.
Jill Moore is a fiction/narrative nonfiction writer and book reviewer living in Phoenix, AZ.