#23: Black Like Me by John Howard Griffin

What an excellent, excellent story. This is the only the second nonfiction book I’ve read (My Year with Eleanor being the first).

The book begins in late October of 1959 when John Howard Griffin decides that he will change the pigment of his skin and venture into the deep, racist south in order to better understand the lives of black people. The results are as expected, astounding racism and a lack of unity. The lack of unity is both between whites and blacks, but almost more importantly, among blacks themselves. This is often the center of a lot of minority and/or marginalized groups. Seeing as I cannot personally relate to the life and history of a black person, I instead was able to draw comparisons and similarities to being a woman in the sexist culture we live in today. I have had numerous talks with my mom about how women are actually our worst enemy in our fight for equality. If we were able to unify as a gender, as blacks needed and still need to unify as a race, both groups would be much more successful in overcoming their prejudices. One of the sources of this failure to unite lies in what philosophers define as “fragmented individualism.” I will leave Griffin to define it,

“What fragmented individualism really meant was what happened to a black man who tried to make it in this society: in order to succeed, he had to become an imitation white man – dress white, talk white, think white, express the values of middle-class white culture (at least when he was in the presence of white men). Implied in all this was the hiding, the denial, of his selfhood, his negritude, his culture, as though they were somehow shameful. If he succeeded, he was an alienated marginal man – alienated from the strength of his culture and from fellow black men, and never able, of course, to become the imitation white man because he bore the pigment that made the white man view him as intrinsically other. The instant the term fragmented individualism was understood, it was completely understood by black men who had lived it in all its nuances. And as soon as it was understood, black men could do something positive to counter it. The “brother” and “sister” concept swept in. Black people deliberately stopped trying to imitate white men in dress, speech, and etiquette. Black men reversed the weaknesses of fragmented individualism by studying black history, developing black pride, even using words like “black” which had been oppressive before, hammering them home until they stood for the symbol of New Black and became beautiful.”

I wish this book was a requirement in schools because reading passages like that infuriated me knowing that the people who need to hear what was written will never pick up this book. The people that terrorize the BLM group, but who will not take a moment to try to understand what those people have gone through. John Howard Griffin received death threats and had to move from his home after publishing this book. Think about that for a minute. He wrote a true account of what was occurring in the deep south through the eyes of a black man and he was greeted with death threats. Exposing the truth and he became an outcast.

“We led strange, hidden lives… We were advocating only that this country live up to its promises to all citizens. But since racism always hides under a respectable guise – usually the guise of patriotism and religion – a great many people loathed us for knocking holes in these respectable guises.”

Sound familiar? What kind of world is that to live in? I’ll tell you, it is the very world we live in now because despite the many improvements since the 60’s, minorities and other marginalized groups are still so so far behind the white man.

All I can say is that if you’re having doubts, if you read all of that and somehow are at the conclusion that I’m a liberal snowflake, go read Black Like Me. Just give it a shot and try for a moment to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. John Howard Griffin did this and found that by only changing the pigment of his skin, he was treated as an entirely different person. So just consider that next time you think you are above a black person, a quick trip to a dermatologist could change the way people view you immediately.

Here are a few of my other favorite quotes…

“They make it impossible for us to earn, to pay much in taxes because we haven’t much in income, and then they say that because they pay most of the taxes, they have the right to have things like they want. It’s a vicious circle, Mr. Griffin, and I don’t know how we’ll get out of it. They put us low, and then blame us for being down there and say that since we are low, we can’t deserve our rights.”

“I concluded that, as in everything else, the atmosphere of a place is entirely different for Negro and white. The Negro sees and reacts differently not because he is Negro, but because he is suppressed. Fear dims even the sunlight.”

“Didn’t Shakespeare say something about ‘every fool in error can find a passage of Scripture to back him up’? He knew his religious bigots.”

Next up, The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne…


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