Black Like Me
Written by John Howard Griffin
I naively thought the election of the first African American U.S. president marked an important turning point in race relations. Then came protests and violent race riots in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014. Other tragedies involving cops and people of color sparked protests across the U.S. with more fuel thrown on the fire during Trump rallies.
It’s never been so clear to me how important it is to ‘walk a mile’ in another’s shoes. That idea brought me to thinking about a movie I saw decades earlier about a white journalist who used medical treatments and cosmetics to learn first-hand what it was like to be an American black man in the Deep South in 1959.
The film was based on the book of the same name, Black Like Me, written by Texan John Howard Griffin of his month plus posing as an African American in the then-segregated states of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia. I went to my local library and borrowed a 2004 audiobook of Black Like Me, 55 years after the publication of its first edition.
The book opens with Griffin’s idea and his execution of it, recruiting a physician to help with this unusual and possibly hazardous medical procedure to darken his skin. The story truly begins, however, when Griffin looks at himself in the mirror and barely recognizes who he is seeing. The only difference is his skin color and hair which he’s shaved away to hide the tell-tale brown.
That moment may seem overly dramatic but it is key because throughout his journeys, the only difference between the previous John Howard Griffin and the new John Howard Griffin is the color of his skin.
That difference makes it fair game for a young tough to stalk Griffin and taunt him with the ‘N’ word and threats of violence.
That difference puts Griffin and those who share a darker skin shade at the back of the bus. Moreover, that difference gives Griffin and the reader a small understanding of what that means.
African Americans paid the same bus fare but they are refused any courtesy from a simple ‘Watch Your Step’ accorded the deboarding white passengers to a washroom break for the front of the bus during a long trip between cities.
They were also denied all of the other conveniences we expect today as a matter of civility – a drink of water, the ability to cash a traveller’s cheque, a place to sit. All of these things meant those of color in that era and in those places had to plan everything in advance from washrooms available to blacks, carrying sufficient cash, food, water, and knowing where to stay. Within the black community it created a kinship and Griffin found himself the beneficiary of the kindness of many African Americans who understood his plight and made space for him in sometimes one-room homes without any expectation of being paid.
It would be easy to say that was then and this is now. Black Like Me lets the reader see through another’s eyes and that never grows old. A simple skin color change made Griffin an unwelcome alien in his own country. We see it. We feel it. I’d be surprised if anyone did that today in the U.S. or Canada that the experience weren’t shocking on many levels.
I was also struck by the silence of white individuals who gave subtle signs they disagreed with the injustice but did nothing because they feared reprisals by the racist thought leaders. That happens all too frequently today and for the same reasons.
Griffin’s family and parents were forced to leave their homes because of threats after the book’s release.
And that’s a lesson that makes Black Like Me an important piece of literature historically and today because Griffin had the courage to out bigotry, injustice, and shameful behaviour and inspired others to do the same.
– Reviewed by Dark Matters