My personal challenge for Black History Month was to read one book a week. I can tell you right now – that’s not happening! But more on that later…..
I finished the first book on my challenge list, Black Like Me. This book is the true story of John Howard Griffin, a white man who decides to take medication to darken his skin so that he can live as a black man in the Deep South in 1959.
The book opens with Griffin taking the final steps to undergo the transformation for the decision he has made to live as a black man. One of the last questions he asks is whether or not people would treat him as himself, John Howard Griffin, even though he would now be black. His friend’s response, “They’re not going to ask you any questions. As soon as they see you, you’ll be a Negro and that’s all they’ll ever want to know about you.” And with that, I took a deep breath, because I knew this was going to be an emotionally taxing read.
I will not go into the details on all that Griffin experienced while being black during this era; most of us know the stories. Reading them was difficult, at times abominable and contemptible. But what I will touch on are two moments of enlightenment that were able to be expressed due to the uniqueness of the situation.
On Griffin’s first night as a black man, he made a somber observation: Tonight they looked at me but did not see me. I paused here. It was a long pause. What does it do to the morale of a person to have someone look at you and not even acknowledge your presence – day, after day, after day.
On one rare occasion when Griffin was able to engage in conversation with a white man, the man stated of black people’s condition, “It looks like a man could do better.” Griffin’s response, “It looks that way to you because you can see what better would be.” I understand the white man’s response but I don’t think he considered that a system was devised to prevent the progress that would lead to “better”. But does Griffin have a point as well? Do you have to see "better" to know that it exists? This was a thought provoking exchange that took me back to a post I wrote, Don’t Want to Chose? Create a New Option.
The one thing that bothered me about the book itself was Griffin’s persistent attempts to draw conclusions about what black people thought and felt based on what he experienced while passing as black. The problem with this? It doesn’t matter how many days he walked around in black skin; he was not black. On any given day he could decide that he was done with this experiment. And on the day that his “ [my] heart sickened at the thought of anymore hate”, that’s exactly what he did. Therefore, he could never fully know the tribulations of those who had no such option.
I think I've forgotten how to write a brief review. There is so much more to be said about this book. You should read it so we can talk about it. It’s not just about race. It’s about humanity.
"I am annoyed by those who love mankind but are cruel and discourteous to people."
"Black Like Me" by John Howard Griffin