Black Like Me Review
Published in 1960, just prior to the Kennedy years, and written by a White, Black Like Me might seem destined for oblivion. Since then, Black studies have produced an enormous body of meaningful works in literature, art, music, history, and the social sciences commemorating Black existence in America. But this idea of Texan John Howard Griffin to pass himself off as Black, bus to the deep south, and experience first hand a tense situation that still awaited a number of champions and critical events, was in its day bold and ambitious.
Griffin is certainly a writer; he is good with the written word. His book reads well. Also, its subject material can still astonish, if only the reader will make allowances for the time bracket in which this gutsy change-of-skin took place. Griffin may have been motivated in part by wanting to publish a best-seller, but the various predicaments in which he finds himself after his transformation are much too dire to be considered selfish. He truly gets a story that people living in a very segregated world needed to read or vicariously experience.
After Griffin undergoes a skin-darkening procedure, hardly recognizing himself in the mirror, he meets Sterling Williams. This man, who shines shoes in New Orleans, becomes a life-saver and living-guide to Griffin. The latter hardly knows what to do. He cannot go to the restaurant in the French Quarter, where he had an exquisite meal not long before. Only as a busboy can he even get in the door. He must become a quick study in a hundred different shadowy subjects. For instance, he cannot smile at or acknowledge a white woman and expect to survive unscathed. Williams clues him in as to where he must go to get a drink of water and use the facilities. Choices are few and there is no margin for error.
From New Orleans, Griffin travels eastward to the nation's high profile trouble spots. In Montgomery, Martin Luther King is preaching his signature message of peaceful resistance. In Mississippi, a black man accused of murder and rape has been lynched. Despite a great deal of evidence against the lynch mob, no one is cited. By now, however, Griffin's original panache has suffered. He cannot handle being Black full time. His pain threshold has been reached. Working as a menial, he falls into a depression. A red-neck boss warns him to "show us some teeth" (p. 167). He feels the need to take breaks, to meander about and make observations as a White. In this manner, he can successfully dodge hate stares and other offensiveness, such as being prodded by Whites to reveal sexual exploits.
On the way to Hattiesburg, Mississippi, Griffin (Black) finds out to his consternation that he cannot disembark after Whites, permitted the use of rest rooms in Slidell, Louisiana. Standing on the bottom step next to a door that will not open, Griffin has a guardedly polite exchange with the driver. The latter will brook no argument. "I can't be bothered rounding up all you people when we get ready to go," he explains (p. 60). It will take more than a single, random confrontation to overcome this rude act of condescension. But it pays to look back at and take note of a stubborn mindset that must be continually attacked. Otherwise, it will return, at a moment's notice, and set humanity back who knows how many years. Insofar as prejudice is concerned, all battles fought against it were hard won.
A very illuminating section of Black Like Me is the epilogue. Griffin's baptism of fire is now over. But he attends conferences in the sixties, during which time progress is starting to be made, however meager. Feelings of rage and resentment are constant and, sometimes, counter-productive. Griffin is accepted, but his authority does not go unchallenged. After all, he has paid dues, but not nearly as much as genuine Blacks. All the same, his book has stirred things up. It has raised the nation's level of awareness. But Whites who try to help are still branded communists. And a Black civil rights lawyer, ambushed in a men's room, emerges with a record for indecent exposure. Other Blacks in hotel rooms answer knocks at the door and are beaten senseless. Ghettoes are also big trouble. Riots break out. But Griffin's main objection, that a Black, no matter who, or a Black-looking White, as the case might be, is judged soley on the basis of pigmentation.