Sunday, November 13, 2011

Black Like Me

On November 7 1959 John Howard Griffin, a white Texan journalist, checked into a hotel in New Orleans. He had already been taking medication to darken his skin. Now he shaved his head and applied coat after coat of dark stain. When he had finished he looked in the mirror. 'A fierce, bald, and very dark Negro glared at me from the glass. He in no way resembled me. The transformation was total and shocking . . . I was imprisoned in the flesh of an utter stranger, an unsympathetic one with whom I felt no kinship.' So began the six weeks or so that Griffin lived as a black man in the segregated South, encountering not only the racism in society, but his own hitherto unconscious racism. BLACK LIKE ME contains his journal of these weeks and the story of what came after. I had never heard of this book until it was chosen by my book group. I had known of course - in theory - about the situation that he writes about, but the details of this account brought it home to me as never before. He wrote frankly, telling of his fear when he hitched a ride with a white man who told him that he had had sex with all the black women who worked for him - they couldn't refuse because they needed to eat or to feed their children - and talked of how easily the body of a black troublemaker could be tossed in the swamp and never heard of again. He experienced the posiononous atmosphere of a town where just days before a Grand Jury had failed to indict a lynch mob for the murder of a black man. He writes of 'the hate stare' that he endured from white people.
When his journal of these weeks was published, he was threatened with castration, he was hanged in effigy in his home town, and moved his family to Mexico for their own safety. He refused to be intimidated and went on to play a prominent in the civil rights movement. As a consequence a gang of white men beat him with chains and left him for dead.
An extraordinary man and an extraordinary book.

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