Julie Christine's Reviews > Black Like Me

Black Like Me by John Howard Griffin
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Let's just put this right up front: the idea that it takes a white man posing as a black man to convince white America of the realities of racism smacks of patronizing racial tourism; something only tone-deaf Hollywood could conjure up (except that not even Hollywood dreamed up Rachel Dolezal, who egregiously co-opted a black identity to further her professional agenda and to block up holes in her own emotional dam).

But that is looking at John Griffin's extraordinary experiment through a 21st century lens, with all the cultural and political knowledge that hindsight affords. In 1959, Griffin darkened his skin by taking pills and sitting under a sun lamp and rubbing "stain" into his skin, and then spent six weeks traveling through the American South. That he was a black man was never questioned. He lived in black neighborhoods in New Orleans and travelled in fear into Mississippi, where the recent trial of white men accused of lynching and murdering a black man was an epic travesty of justice, like so many trials before it (of those crimes actually brought to trial). Griffin's actions became a catalyst in the Civil Rights era of the early 60s. After the publication of his experiences, first in the magazine Sepia, then in this book, Black Like Me in 1961, Griffin and his family became targets of retribution for his betrayal and his insistence on racial justice. In 1964, he was beaten with chains by a gang of white men in Mississippi and left for dead. Eventually his family moved to Mexico to live in the safety of anonymity.

The irony of course is that the very segment of the American population Griffin tried to speak for, black America, could never pick up and move to a safer, more just life in another place. Black America could not wash its face, wait for its skin to lighten, and then capture the spotlight as a curiosity or social experiment and earn speaking fees or royalties; no, black America is still waiting for so much of white America—fifty-five years after Griffin said to himself, "The only way I could see to bridge the gap between us was to become a Negro"—to acknowledge that systemic racism is ground into our political and cultural institutions, that it can't be washed off like Griffin washed off the stain from his skin.

Black Like Me is a painful read. I had a very hard time suspending disbelief that Griffin could so easily pass for black. I struggled with extreme discomfort at Griffin speaking for people of color in the narrative. This discomfort played out in Griffin's own life, when he admitted a few years after the publication of Black Like Me the terrible irony that people came to hear him speak, as if he were a circus side-show, yet would not give the same attention to civil rights and social justice advocates of color who lived their lives in the world where he had only sojourned for six weeks.

But again, I must put my reactions and feelings in context. What Griffin accomplished was revolutionary—he provoked white America into a radical empathy and exposed the fallacy of colorblindness. In his 1977 memoir, A Time To Be Human, he states, “Surely one of the strangest experiences a person can have is suddenly to step out into the streets and find that the entire white society is convinced that individual possesses qualities and characteristics which that person knows he does not possess. I am not speaking here only of myself. This is the mind-twisting experience of every black person I know." That statement is at the heart of the why and the what of his actions in 1959. Black Like Me is a mind- and heart-twisting book. It cannot be judged out of the cultural context in which it was written, but it can continue to be read for the profound relevance it still holds today, when we still have to explain why Black Lives Matter.

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Quotes Julie Christine Liked

John Howard Griffin
“Every fool in error can find a passage of scripture to back him up”
John Howard Griffin, Black Like Me

Reading Progress

August 31, 2015 – Shelved
August 31, 2015 – Shelved as: to-read
September 9, 2015 – Started Reading
September 11, 2015 – Shelved as: american-south
September 11, 2015 – Shelved as: best-of-2015
September 11, 2015 – Shelved as: bio-autobio-memoir
September 11, 2015 – Shelved as: classic
September 11, 2015 – Shelved as: read-2015
September 11, 2015 – Shelved as: social-political-commentary
September 11, 2015 – Shelved as: usa-historical
September 11, 2015 – Finished Reading

Comments Showing 1-4 of 4 (4 new)

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Julie Christine I need to stand back for a bit, to sift through all the discomfort I felt reading this book. I've just read through a number of reader reviews and feel rage and bewilderment at the bizarre comments, critical of this book and this journalist, that seemed to be made without any recognition that this experiment took place in 1959, not 201... Perhaps a better understanding of the historical context could be achieved before throwing around contemporary terms like "racial tourism" and "white privilege", concepts so foreign to late 1950s America they are laughable. I suggest those in doubt of the significance and impact of Griffin's contribution to our understanding of racism and social justice read this Smithsonian article : http://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-cu...

message 2: by Connie (last edited Sep 19, 2015 06:50AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Connie G I read the book way back in 1968, and thought it was a very courageous piece of investigative reporting that opened up the eyes of many people. I think there's room on the bookshelves for people of many backgrounds to write about racism.

Good review, Julie. The Smithsonian article was very interesting since I did not know Griffin's personal history.

Julie Christine Connie wrote: "I read the book way back in 1968, and thought it was a very courageous piece of investigative reporting that opened up the eyes of many people. I think there's room on the bookshelves for people o..."

Wasn't that a great article? It really gives needed perspective into Griffin's life and motivations.

I so agree, Connie- we need many voices, many perspectives. Thank you!

Emily Powerful review, Julie. I have just read this book but did not know what happened to Griffin after the book ended -- the move to Mexico (he only mentioned his parents moving there), nor the beating he received. I will check out the Smithsonian article. Much appreciated!

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