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Black Like Me,

by John Howard Griffin

ISBN: 0930324722


"Rest at pale evening...

A tall slim tree...

Night coming tenderly

          Black like me.


from Dream Variation

by Langston Hughes


In 1959, a white man did an unprecedented thing; he re-made himself into a black man. The social experiment seemed simple enough, change the color of the skin, and experience society through a 'black man's eyes.' Griffin sought to live in the deep south of America for a few weeks to see how white America treated him, and then relate his experiences in print.  The experience was revolutionary not only for Griffin but also for those who would later discover that the 'black' man they had met was indeed not black at all.


Griffin, the writer, is as interesting a persona as the subject matter that he covers in this interesting book.  He was educated in France, and became a musicologist specializing in medieval music and Gregorian chant. He received certificates of study from the Benedictines at the Abbey of Solemnes in France. By age nineteen he was serving as a medic for the French Resistance Army fighting the Nazis. Later he served in the U.S. Air Corps, was wounded in the Pacific, and also decorated for bravery under fire. His wounds and trauma resulted in a temporary state of blindness that lasted ten years from 1946 to 1957.  During that time he began to dictate five novels. Less than two years after regaining his sight, he altered his skin color by using drugs, and delved into a racist society which he called home. He would ultimately help others to see the immorality and violence of racism in America.


     "It was too much. Though I was experiencing it, I could not believe it. Surely in America a whole segment of decent souls could not stand by and allow such massive crimes to be committed. I tried to see the whites' side, as I have all along... They judged me by no other quality. My skin was dark. That was sufficient reason for them to deny me those rights and freedoms without which life loses its significance and becomes a matter of little more than animal survival." (p. 112)


     "This may not be all of it. It may not cover all the questions, but it is what it is like to be a Negro in a land where we keep the Negro down. Some Whites will say this is not really it.  They will say this is the White man's experience as a Negro in the South, not the Negro's.

     But this is picayunish, and we no longer have time for that. We no longer have time to atomize principles and beg the question. We fill too many gutters while we argue unimportant points and confuse the issues.

     The Negro. The South. These are details. The real story is the universal one of men who destroy the souls and bodies of other men (and in the process destroy themselves) for reasons neither really understands. It is the story of the persecuted, the defrauded, the feared and detested. I could have been a Jew in Germany, a Mexican in a number of states, or a member of any "inferior" group. Only the details would have differed.  The story would be the same.

     This began as a scientific research study of the Negro in the South, with careful compilation of data for analysis. But I filed the data, and here publish the journal of my own experience living as a Negro.  I offer it in all its crudity and rawness. It traces the changes that occur to heart and body and intelligence when a so-called first-class citizen is cast on the junk heap of second-class citizenship."       Preface


The backlash to Griffin's book was stark and cruel. His parents would be forced to sell their home and move to Mexico, as did John Griffin and his family for nearly a year, this as a result of the harassment and threats they were subjected to, after his voyage of discovery became known.  Griffin later moved to Ft. Worth Texas.  He died in 1980.  This is a book that still needs to be read. Its lessons remain as valid, and as pressing today as they were in the late 1950's, for racism still is with us, though be it in a subtler form.


Reviewed by

V. Saraiva



Posted  August 17, 2005

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