The old saying is that you never know what someone else is going through or living until you’ve walked a mile in his shoes and frankly it’s impossible. However, John Howard Griffin turned his skin black and tried to live as a black man for six weeks while travelling through the Deep South in 1959. He persisted to take a medication which is normally prescribed to patients suffering from vitiligo, a disease where white spots appear on the body and the face, in conjunction with exposure to ultra-violet rays to darken his skin. This process would take from six weeks to three months but since he wanted the process to be accelerated so that he could get on to his project, the doses were augmented so that he could start on his journey as a black man.
Now this is actually my second reading of this book. I’d forgotten how powerful it is, not to mention I was only seventeen the first time I read it and really can’t remember what I thought of it. I don’t usually have the habit of rereading books, but I think I may have to change that. You do see things differently reading books at different ages.
Black Like Me really does explore the life of a black man, but directly through the eyes of a white man. It’s like being a fly on the wall. Griffin went through the Deep South in 1959, riding buses, hitchhiking, trying to find jobs, and meeting blacks and whites of all classes. The book is recounted in journal entries since this is what he used as a way to record everything he’d seen and felt for the day. So, it is like we have a sneak peek into his travels.
One main positive point of Black Like Me is that it is particularly well written and Griffin had an astute sense of analysis about the people he met along the journey, about some the things they said and even their body language and facial expressions. He interpreted situations perfectly. In fact, there were moments of high suspense where we as the reader feared for him. All in all his experience helped him to tell the story of his journey. Now I’m sure some African-Americans will have a problem accepting Black Like Me because it’s a white man telling it, so its authenticity is on the line and he was white so he couldn’t really know what black people were going through. I get that, but I have to disagree, in this case. Griffin approached this whole idea like a journalist but with the skin he was in he would have had to be blind not to feel some of the things blacks were feeling and going through at the time, for everyone that looked at him treated him like he was black. He makes that point quite clear in the novel when he talks about the hard racist stares and how the blackness of the skin is what seems to be despised and why the black man was treated as inferior. He reflects on this and explains how illogical this way of thinking is and the more and more that he continues on his journey the more that he feels like a shadow. “I have held no brief for the Negro. I have looked diligently for all aspects of “inferiority” among them and I cannot find them. All the cherished-begging epithets applied to the Negro race, and widely accepted as truth even by men of good will, simply prove untrue when one lives among them. This, of course, excludes the trash element, which is the same everywhere and is no more evident among Negroes than whites. When all the talk, all the propaganda has been cut away, the criterion is nothing but the color of skin. My experience proved that. They judged me by no other quality. My skin was dark. That was sufficient reason for them to deny me those rights and freedoms without which life loses its significance and becomes a matter of little more than animal survival. I searched for some other answer and found none. I had spent a day without food and water for no other reason than that my skin was black.“(Black Like Me, p.115)
In essence, I believe this book was written for the white man. Most people believed black people were poorly educated and probably dismissed their writings and absolutely didn’t believe that they were disenfranchised. Whereas Black Like Me was like a ripple in the river that couldn’t be ignored, I remember hearing my Uncle Lawrence talk to me about this book when I was young, as well as Malcolm X, James Baldwin, Richard Wright, Dick Gregory, W.E.B DuBois, and others. He felt that Black Like Me was an accurate account and felt that every American should read it. He used to say, “It happened, is still happening in some places, and we should talk about it.”
As I was reading Black Like Me this second time, I was thinking about my mother and my Uncle Lawrence and wondering how in the world did they survive all of that. I wondered deep down inside if I would have been as strong and combative as they were. I felt this especially at the moments in the book that made me feel sick to my stomach and very fearful. This just reinforces that history must be told in its entirety and truthfully. We can’t afford to leave anything out. Our youth and future generations are depending on our capacity to be thorough, but most of all honest. Everybody needs to know where they’ve come from, how they’ve acquired what they have today, and what they hope for the future.