Reading John Howard Griffin’s challenging ‘Black Like Me’

John Howard Griffin (Wikimedia Commons)

After he had walked along a highway from Biloxi heading toward Mobile for many hours on Nov. 20, 1959, a series of white Mississippian drivers, without any initial menace, willingly transported John Howard Griffin at least part of the way toward Alabama. Griffin had been living as a Black man in New Orleans and Hattiesburg for nearly two weeks. He had taken a prescription drug, exposed his skin to an ultraviolet lamp for days and touched up his appearance with darkening cream in order to pass as a Black writer in the South. But he did not see himself as passing for Black; he understood his transformation as “passing over” to a life lived among Black people in the South. Griffin’s “passing over” succeeded. He was deemed Black by all those he encountered—whatever their race.

Black Like Meby John Howard Griffin

Berkley

208p, $14

On the road to Mobile, Griffin soon was aghast and then wearied by white male drivers who constantly peppered him with puerile questions about the sexual activity of Black men. The conversation had many registers, but it had the same content: sexual deviancy and fantasy. One driver goaded Griffin continuously, even quoting Alfred Kinsey and asinine anthropological claims about black men and sex. Griffin’s account of the exchange is exceedingly insightful. More important, it reveals more about Griffin himself than the seemingly intelligent driver who was stuck in a morass of racist sexual fantasy and stereotype. Of the driver, Griffin writes:

It became apparent he was one of those young men who possesses an impressive store of facts, but no truths. This again would have no significance and would be unworthy of note except for one thing: I have talked with such men many times as a white and they never show the glow of prurience he revealed. The significance lay in the fact that my blackness and his concepts of what my blackness implied allowed him to expose himself in this manner. He saw the Negro as a different species. He saw me as something akin to an animal in that he felt no need to maintain his sense of human dignity, though he certainly would have denied this.

By this point, I would imagine readers and participants in the Catholic Book Club will have become deeply uncomfortable with Griffin, his project and the way he writes about it. In this passage, the phrase “my blackness” must seem particularly jarring to the reader. It was indeed so to me. Griffin was not Black; he took on Blackness in a dangerous way and tried to insert himself in Black life in the Deep South. However—and this is an important however—John Howard Griffin did this because he knew that he did not possess the truth. He was painfully aware that he had not even an inkling of the truth regarding the daily life of Black people in the Deep South in 1959.

He possessed some truths about justice, some facts about the furious violence enacted on Blacks in the South, and he was hungry for a fuller truth. His hunger hounded him so much that he was insistent in carrying out this project, even to the point of death. Griffin’s unquestionable sincerity, sensitivity to justice and humility in the face of the truth of the experience of Blacks in the South should be enough for us to hear his story with an open mind and reflect on the profound but partial truths that he discovered in his temporary Blackness. Griffin seems utterly oriented toward truth, which, I think, is a meaningful way for a human being to live.

There is so much to discuss in this rather short book. I offer an extended set of questions below—the most I have ever offered for an introduction to a book. But before I get to those questions, I find one further aspect of Griffin’s account compelling and absolutely central to his account. John Howard Griffin was a husband and father of three young children when he took up this project, and, I think, his deepest insights around the reality of life in the South emerge in his reflections about parenthood.

An important reflection on parenthood occurs immediately after Griffin leaves the puerile conversation detailed above and seeks a bit of rest alone on the highway. The next driver who picked him up was a stolid white man, a construction worker in his early 20s. Oddly enough, the young man’s demeanor put the Black John Howard Griffin at ease. The young man is happy, utterly open, guileless, sincere, thoughtful and without a hint of prejudice—either explicit or implicit. The driver is reminiscent of the peasant in Tolstoy’s War and Peace, Platon Karataev, who helps Pierre Bezukhov regain his humanity after Pierre was nearly executed by retreating French soldiers. Griffin’s driver, like Platon, is profoundly human. Griffin begins to understand that this enlightened white man’s lack of prejudice comes not from any education or upbringing or family connection, but, Griffin surmises, from this young man’s love for his young child. Griffin writes:

I could only conclude that his attitude came from an overwhelming love for his child, so profound it spilled over to all humanity. I knew that he was totally unaware of its ability to cure men; of the blessing it could be to someone like me after having been exhausted and scraped raw in my heart by others this rainy Alabama night.
I thought of Maritain’s conclusion that the only solution to the problems of man is the return of charity (in the old embracing sense of caritas, not in the stingy literal sense it has assumed in our days) and metaphysics. Or, more simply, the maxim of St. Augustine: “Love, and then do what you will.”

A few days later, after an even more crude and more suggestively violent ride at the hands of a white driver, Griffin is given shelter by a Black family somewhere in the swamps between Mobile and Montgomery. Sharing a hovel with parents and their six children, Griffin is overwhelmed both by the generosity of his hosts and the nature of their grinding poverty. After the entire family drifts off to sleep on the floor around Griffin, he is compelled to go outside into the dark swamp and weep with sadness and deeper realization—a step closer to a fuller truth. Alone in the swamp just outside where the family slept, Griffin ponders the following:

I thought of my daughter, Susie, and of her fifth birthday today, the candles, the cake and party dress; and of my sons in their best suits. They slept now in clean beds in a warm house while their father, a bald-headed old Negro, sat in the swamps and wept, holding it in so he would not awaken the Negro children.... It was thrown in my face. I saw it not as a white man and not as a Negro, but as a human parent. Their children resembled mine in all ways except the superficial one of skin color, as indeed they resembled all children of all human beings. Yet this accident, this least important of all qualities, the skin pigment, marked them for inferior status. It became fully terrifying when I realized that if my skin were permanently black, [whites] would unhesitatingly consign my own children to this bean [sic.: poor, narrow] future.

John Howard Griffin’s realizations seem to culminate in this notion of parental love and the injustice enacted against Black people in the United States. Not only was there an intricate web of injustice and suffering constricting the existence of Black men and women in the South (and, perhaps, throughout all of the United States), such suffering also permeated the way Black people loved as parents: Those whom they love, those whom they have brought into the world, are consigned to share in the suffering that the parents have already undertaken—and they are totally unable to staunch such suffering in their children.

There is further suffering in such a realization—such suffering that can only begin to be depicted by a novel like Toni Morrison’s Beloved and an author writing directly from her Black experience. Though his book does not have the artistic profundity of such a novel, Griffin’s Black Like Me offers a deeply thoughtful depiction of the truth of the Black experience in the South in the late 1950s and early ’60s from the perspective of a middle-aged white man. I encourage all participants in the Catholic Book Club to give it a shot.

Questions for Discussion:

Blackface. John Howard Griffin describes the rationale for his project in the fall of 1959 on the first page of his book:

How else except by becoming a Negro could a white man hope to learn the truth? Though we lived side by side throughout the South, communication between the two races had simply ceased to exist. Neither really knew what went on with those of the other race. The Southern Negro will not tell the white man the truth. He long ago learned that if he speaks a truth unpleasing to the white, the white will make life miserable for him.

Griffin will soon learn that not only would life be made miserable for Black people who challenged the reality of Jim Crow in the South, they would feel the full force of state-sponsored violence leveled against them and their communities. As our country knows well now, such violence persists to the present day.

The notion of a white man coloring himself to pass as Black is deemed terribly repugnant today. Is Griffin’s project likewise repugnant or is there something different about it? Does Griffin’s willingness to risk his own health to take on a Black identity—and then to risk his life—in service of a project to expose a fuller truth around racism in the South exempt him from our immediate repugnance for any instance of blackface? At least to some extent? Or is it the case that such an effort on the part of a white person is never justified? I am truly uncertain of the answer to such questions.

Mirrors. Robert Bonazzi, a biographer of Griffin, notes in his afterword to the 50th Anniversary Edition that Griffin describes six moments throughout the book when he sees himself in a mirror. The first instance is probably the most dramatic, and Bonazzi understands this as Griffin confronting his own racism in seeing a stranger in the mirror when his skin-darkening culminates in New Orleans. It is an unsettling account, and Griffin is deeply honest about himself in the moment. Later, he catches sight of himself in a mirror in a rooming house in Hattiesburg: “The bald Negro stared back at me from his mottled sheen. I knew I was in hell. Hell could not be more lonely or hopeless, no more agonizingly estranged from the world of order and harmony.” Something similar happens to him in a bus station on the way to Montgomery. Then there are the scenes in Atlanta and elsewhere when Griffin changes back to white.

Are these moments overly dramatic? Do they mark profound recognition of Griffin’s own complicated, perhaps suppressed racism? The hate-stares and scowls that Griffin experiences while Black as well as the winks and smiles that he is offered when he “zigzags” back to white—are these instances enough for Griffin to understand himself as Black?

Trolleys, Buses and Bathrooms. Deliberate cruelty and the threat of violence seem to unfold around trolleys, buses and bathrooms from New Orleans to Atlanta. There are too many instances to recount. But perhaps Griffin’s realization during his first awkward trolley ride as a Black man deserves mention. He inadvertently suggested, by a glance, that a white woman sit down next to him rather than stand during her trip. The glance was deemed an affront by the white woman who then began a vile, racist tirade. In the midst of this outburst, Griffin realizes:

I learned a strange thing—that in a jumble of unintelligible talk, the word n— leaps out with electric clarity. You always hear it and always it stings. And always it casts the person using it into a category of brute ignorance. I thought with some amusement that if these two women only knew what they were revealing about themselves to every Negro on that bus, they would have been outraged.

Why were trolleys, buses, bathrooms and waiting rooms such flashpoints? Where are the flashpoints of racism today? Where are suffering and hate made most visible? What aspects, what spaces from our ordinary life invite the baring of racism and, perhaps, initiate simmering confrontation?

Prayer and Catholicism. A few years before this project, John Howard Griffin converted to Catholicism. He clearly carries the enthusiasm of his conversion into his writing. Early on in his time in New Orleans, he asks where he might find a Catholic church. He speaks of praying to St. Jude when he is threatened with violence at the hands of a menacing white stalker during his first few days posing as a Black man. He often praised a Catholic openness to desegregation in and around New Orleans, citing his relief that a Catholic bookstore in New Orleans was decent enough to cash his traveler’s checks when no other shop in the city would provide such a service to a Black man. He also describes a thoughtful monk at a Trappist monastery in Conyers, Ga., where Griffin stays a few days.

Furthermore, Griffin praises Jacques Maritain, whom readers may remember as an important figure from Catholic Modern, the Spring 2019 selection for the Catholic Book Club. It is clear that Maritain was an utterly important Catholic intellectual (and convert) who spoke eloquently for justice, the common good and human rights. Maritain attracted so many intellectuals to the faith. No doubt that, given Maritain’s experience in the French Resistance, Griffin admired him for his opposition to the Nazis as well.

In any case, my question is: Does Griffin go too easy on the Catholic Church? Was the Catholic Church in the South and elsewhere that tolerant and supportive of Black people and the pursuit of civil rights?

Books and Writing. I find Griffin’s own writing saturated with allusions to books and a variety of writers. It reminds me of a world in which print dominated political and social movements instead of digital media or social media. There was nothing but long-form writing. When P.D. East and Griffin spend two days together reading East’s manuscript, I am reminded of the deliberateness and the deliberativeness of print media. Griffin’s work was painstaking, and he was a thinker committed to letters.

First, are men and women at the forefront of political and social movements today likewise committed to books and writing? Which books and which writers?

Second, how should one interpret Griffin’s epigraph, an excerpt from Langston Hughes’s poem “Dream Variation”? Is this a clumsy use of a fantastic poetic image originally spoken in a Black poet’s voice? Or does Griffin’s use hint at something else?

Women. It seems that women, particularly Black women, are almost completely absent from Griffin’s account. Is this a profound failure on his part? Does his lack of attention to Black women reflect the tendency of male writers of the mid-20th century to ignore women in general? Is Griffin’s depiction of white women and their hate-stares grotesque?

Echoes of Today. When Griffin boards the bus to Hattiesburg, he overhears, “Well, here we go into Mississippi—the most lied about state in the union.” This sounds like a white Mississippian claiming that reports of racism in Mississippi constituted fabrications. This, in turn, sounds like a claim of “fake news.” Likewise the constant insistence that protests and demonstrations were carried out by outsiders and “agitators” and communists seems close to claims of the coordination of “outside groups” and “Antifa” today. Are there other instances in Griffin’s account that seem like echoes of today’s political speak?

Griffin also reserves particular vitriol for “the legal minds” who “deliberately choose to foster distortions, always under the guise of patriotism, upon a people who have no means of checking the facts.”

Sterling Williams and Parker Lynch. Sterling Williams was the first Black person to whom Griffin revealed his project. It was Williams who first included Griffin in a “we” whose antecedent was Black people in the United States in general. It was Williams and his shoe-shine partner, Joe, who expressed deep sadness at the fact that the men who lynched Mack Parker in Mississippi would not even be indicted. It is this conversation that inspires Griffin to make his first foray into Mississippi as a Black man. Were there any other historical figures or events that drew your attention in the book? I, for one, learned a great deal about two mayors: Chep Morrison of New Orleans and William Hartsfield of Atlanta.

Lastly, do you think Griffin should have taken the opportunity to visit Flannery O’Connor instead of visiting the Trappist Monastery?

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