Saturday, February 13, 2010

Black Like Me

Black Like Me
Author: John Howard Griffin
New American Library, 2003 (originally published 1960)
200 pages

For about a month in 1959, a white man from Texas named John Howard Griffin conducted a sort of experiment. He took drugs to darken his skin, and then he traveled from New Orleans through parts of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia while pretending to be African-American. Black Like Me is the story of that journey, not only of the perspective he gained from the experience, but what he learned about himself.

I "had to" read Black Like Me many years ago when I was in high school, but like most required reading, it helps when the reader has some context, especially the type that can only provided by a little more life experience.I got more out of it at age 45 than I did at 15. I'm glad times have changed, but it's hard to wrap my head around people ever treating each other badly. 

Some of the people Griffin encountered behaved atrociously: the woman working at the bus station who hate-stared holes into him; the bus driver who only let white folks get off at one of the stops to use the facilities; the people who could have given him a drink of water or let him use the bathroom but instead made him walk sometimes miles out of the way to the "Negro" or "Colored" (these words are used extensively in the book) parts of town. Worst of all - IMHO - was the middle-aged man who picked Griffin up hitchhiking and boasted of his (forced, no doubt) exploits with African-American women who worked for him. And Griffin writes candidly of one encounter with a Northern academic that is just plain beyond belief.

But there were plenty examples of good behavior in the book, also. Often these examples were from the people who had the least to give or the most to lose by helping Griffin. Particularly touching to me were the times when total strangers invited Griffin into their homes when he needed a place to sleep. One description of an impoverished bayou family nearly brought me to tears.

I look back on this period in history, and I wonder why some people behaved so badly. Especially people who claimed to be religious and considered themselves to be patriotic. Clearly this thing called peer pressure is  powerful - and not just with children. Many times, Griffin wrote that he saw something like sympathy in a person's eyes just before they denied him some basic human right or decency, like a drink of water or food or a place to go to the bathroom. But they didn't have the guts to stand up to the peer pressure. Or whatever you want to call it.

We've come a long way since 1959, but we have a long ways to go yet in how we treat each other - whether it's race or something else that differentiates us. I guess that's the bottom line, and what makes Black Like Me relevant, even fifty years later.