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Tuesday, July 14, 2015

"Color Bind" (on John Howard Griffin's Black Like Me)

color bind

by Douglas Messerli


John Howard Griffin Black Like Me (New York: New American Library, 1960, 1961, 1977)

For some inexplicable reason, I missed out on reading John Howard Griffin’s Black Like Me, first published in 1960. In my small town of Marion, Iowa, there were few if any blacks, and even the nearby Cedar Rapids had what I believe was a very small black population. I certainly did not grow up, at least to my own way of thinking, in a racist home or community (my father, superintendent of schools, was particularly sympathetic, I believe, with equal rights and education for blacks) but we had very little experience with blacks, and the larger issues that would soon enter the American consciousness occurred a few years later, particularly in 1964, the year I spent in Norway.


      By the time I returned to the US and began a university education, the kind of impassioned white plea for the “Negro justice” that Griffin had written had changed into angry and impassioned documents such as Stokley Carmichael’s Black Power, a book I did read, along with Malcolm X’s Autobiography, with their arguments for Black Power and black supremacy, works as Griffin, himself, notes in his intelligent assessment of the changes that occurred after his book’s publication in his Epilogue, ”What’s Happened Since Black Like Me,” that ultimately presented the good deeds of whites who had worked for racial equality as a thing of the past, as the black organizations worked to determine their own identities and positions.
     It seemed to me, as I note above, even before encountering the controversy around Rachel Dozeal and reading books such Your Face in Mine, that it is finally time to read the book recounting a white man’s experiences in the south who, basically, put on black face before traveling from New Orleans to Mississippi, and later to various locations in Alabama in 1959.
     If I began the book simply wanting to challenge the assumption that in order to understand the condition of black men and women during that year, we had to heed the words of a white man over the many black documents that already had revealed the tortures of everyday racism, by the time I finished the book, I gained a new respect for what Griffin had actually done. This religious man was, from his youth on, a figure with great empathy, working in World War II to help Jews escape Nazis, and who, when he discovered he as on the Nazi death list, escaped back to the US, only to be wounded in the Pacific as a member of the Army Air Corps. Growing blind for a head wound, he amazingly regained his sight ten years later. Indeed, one can quickly compare his blindness to his later commitment to color blindness, a connection which the author himself avows in suggesting that the issue of racism began to concern him when he could longer see the apparent differences between the races. That Griffin would also convert to Catholicism and maintain a faith based on the guidance of Catholic thinkers such as Jacques Maritain and Thomas Merton also attests to his commitment to enacting his spiritual values in relation to his fellow beings. 
     If we can look back upon the episodes of the book now with a kind of recognition of the naiveté of it all, akin to the commitment of the Gregory Peck character, who “becomes temporarily Jewish” in the film Gentlemen’s Agreement to reveal the truths about anti-Semitism in post-war American society, we nonetheless must also recognize the courage it took to for a journalist to go on such a voyage in the Jim Crow South of the late 1950s, a few years before the more vocal and nationally-witnessed movements of Martin Luther King, Jr. and others, which would begin to change the Old South.

     In New Orleans, Griffin does not so much encounter the immediate hatred of whites, but begins, nonetheless, to comprehend what it means, literally, to live in a segregated society. For the first time for many whites, the journalist makes clear what it means to go out into the world each day without readily available bathrooms, without being able to sit down in a café to cup of coffee, without the possibility of even sitting down, in some places, without abuse and police interaction. Not only are black lives lived at the edges of the otherwise active worlds going on about them, but the blacks are forced to behave in thousands of obvious and sometimes subtle ways that pretend satisfaction and civility at the very same time that they remain, as true individuals, invisible to the whites who put daily force them into situations based merely on the color of their skin.
     Confessing the truth of his situation to a local shoeshine worker, who Griffin had known previous, the author himself is given a job, becoming a “boy” polishing up the boots of men who hardly recognize his existence or, when they do, tolerate him with hauteur.
     Hearing of a recent lynching of a black man in Mississippi, which a jury, despite evidence from the US government itself, refused to indict, Griffin determines to head out for more problematic encounters with the racial horrors of the South. Although he is somewhat dissuaded by black friends in New Orleans, and is warned even by his fellow black bus travelers on the way to Hattiesburg, he boldly ventures into a new world where he is suddenly thrust overnight into the “hell” of raucous late night black community, where blacks, simply attempting to enjoy themselves by dancing, singing, and eating through the night, are threatened at any moment with gun-toting young white men driving through the streets.
      If there was ever an example of what some have argued is the real problem about a white pretending to be black, who can, at any moment, take back his color to become one of the blessed race, it is revealed in Griffin’s actions; after being psychologically tortured by an ex-con on the bus trip, the journalist finds the sordid room he has been forced to rent for the night nearly impossible to endure:

                 I turned away from the mirror. A burned-out light glove
                 lay on the plank floor in the corner. Its unfrosted glass
                 held the reflection of the overhead bulb, a speck of
                 brightness. A half-dozen film negatives curled up around
                 it like dead leaves. I pick them up and held them before
                 the light with strange excitement, curious to see the
                 image that some prior occupant of the room had photo-
                      Each negative was black.
                      I imagined him going to the drugstore to pick up the
                 packets of photos and hurrying to this squalid room to warm
                 himself with the view of his wife, his children, his parent,
                 his girlfriend—who knows? He had sat here holding blank
                 negatives, masterpieces of the human ingenuity wasted.

If this seems to be mere speculation of Griffin’s part, he soon moves off into an even more imaginative realm by attempting to explain how the black’s “jubilant living” and “whooping it up,” as whites describe it, is actually an expression of despair, a way to dull their sensibilities in noise or wine or sex or gluttony in order to escape the white racism.
      That may well be true, but we are given no sociological evidence that might prove it, and we can only recognize it as an empathetic explanation of the chaos in which he has found himself. Fearing the violence of the scene, Griffin picks up the phone and calls a white newspaperman friend, P. D. East, who has also been prosecuted for “seeking justice in race relations,” in whose comfortable home he spends the rest of the night and weekend.
      East is described later as a kind of wicked humorist, but his mockery of the way whites talk about blacks, particularly in the context of Griffin’s torturous night, is almost intolerable, particularly when East delivers him up again to New Orleans by way of Dillard University, where, after locking his car door in the paradisiac isolation of the campus, he mocks his fellow whites once again with the words: “Did you ever see a damn beautiful campus for a bunch of niggers. They’re getting uppityer and uppityer.” Somehow, over the years, the humor of this apparent self-mockery of his fellow bigots, has been lost.

      To give Griffin credit, however, he remains determined to investigate, and again takes a bus to Biloxi, this time hitchhiking back to Alabama, where he is locked in conversations with various whites, some bigoted, others somewhat interested, and, on one occasion, with  a seemingly completely color-blind young man.

     But even in these situations, in retrospect, I suggest that Griffin, despite his constant personal, quasi-sociological analyses of the meaning of the incidents he experiences, seems, at moments, a bit dense. Picked up by a young man in his late twenties who questions him about black sex, presuming like many whites, that, as the young man states it, “Negroes are much more broad-minded about such things [sexual],” “I understand you make more of an art—or maybe hobby—out of your sex,” Griffin chalks it up as representing yet another white who has allowed myths about blacks to dominant his imagination:

             He asked about the Negro genitalia and the details
             of Negro sex life. Only the language differed from
             the previous inquirers—the substance was the same
             ….He quoted Kinsey and others. It became apparent he
             was one of those young who possess an impressive store
             of facts, but no truths.

Even when the boy asks him to expose himself, Griffin appears not to imagine that the boy, in what seems apparent to me, was probably a gay man seeking to find a sexual experience with the other race. The fact that the boy later apologizes seems to hardly faze the open-minded journalist, who has, one perceives, missed the forest for the trees.

     On the other hand, soon after, when he is picked up, finally, by a black man who, perceiving that Griffin has nowhere to go, invites him to spend the night in his swampland shack with his six children and his wife, Griffin reveals a deeper gift of yarn  in his description of the humble world of this man who has nearly nothing, yet lives life with more grace and gentle pride in this family’s life that in any self-satisfied bigot. Griffin, in short, seemingly reiterates what blacks throughout the south later realized, that their new-found pride and self-determination not only would help save their own lives, but was necessary for the salvation of lives of their fellow whites.
     Even in a world filled with gators and snakes, these simple folk celebrate with cut-up bits of Milky Way bars, singing out their goodnights like the Walton’s in the nostalgic TV series. The overwhelming revelations that Griffin makes transform his sociological consolations into a kind pure poetry akin to the descriptions of the South of James Agee and so many other authors (at one point Griffin has an opportunity to meet Flannery O’Connor, but moves on in his journeys; it would have been marvelous for these two ardent Catholic thinkers to have actually the opportunity to meet) have discovered in their homelands:

             Thinking about these things, the bravery of these people
             attempting to bring up a family decently, their gratitude
             that none of their children were blind or maimed, their
             willingness to share their food and shelter with a stranger—
             the whole thing overwhelmed me. I got up from bed, half-
             frozen anyway, and stepped outside.
                 A thin fog blurred the moon. Trees rose as ghostly
             masses in the diffused light. I sat on an inverted washtub
             and tremble as its metallic coldness seeped through my pants.

               I felt again the Negro children’s lips soft against mine, so like
             the feel of my own children’s good-night kisses. I saw again their
             large eyes, guileless, not yet aware that doors into wonderlands
             of security, opportunity and hope were closed to them.

One longs to find out how those children matured into adulthood.
     Just as we begin to realize the significance of Griffin’s acts, he slips off again into white face, appearing across the country on various television and news shows, including a somewhat imposing, but ultimately fulfilling, interview with Mike Wallace. The journalist becomes famous, while the hundreds of blacks he identified with have become nameless.
     Yet, strangely, his courage becomes even more clear as the year passes, a time during  which his family is threatened, an effigy of him is burned on the downtown streets of his home in a small Texas town, and his parents (his mother having herself been threatened) his wife and children, and, eventually, he himself retreat for protection to Mexico where they were exiled until 1961. 
      If we still might wonder if blacks might not have presented their messages about their inequality better than a white man, Griffin makes quite clear in his “Epilogue” just how impossible that might have been, given that there was so little communication between the two races. As he relates it, during the race riots of the late 1960s, he and other white spokesmen were time and again flown into cities fearing racial tensions. At many of these meetings, where he generally stayed with blacks, the white leaders did not even think to invite black community leaders to their meetings, and when chastised by Griffin and others for their racial attitudes, were ignorant enough to ask him where they might find such black leaders in their towns. Rumor became rampant, writes Griffin, even in my home town of Cedar Rapids (where the media wrongly suggested masses of blacks from Des Moines were being shipped to the home of Quaker Oats and Collins Radio). It was a time which, he reveals, liberal leaders like him might find themselves accused by segregationists for exposing themselves if entered a local bathroom alone, or in accosting a woman whose path they crossed. 
     At some lectures, where Griffin was applauded with his honest assessments of how, even after new governmental racial decisions were put into effect, that blacks continued to be isolated and ghettoized, black representatives, speaking from the same podium, were met with stony stares and hostility for stating the same things.
     In a strange sense, Griffin’s simple color transformation, continued, long after, to make both black and whites see him a man of mixed race; he was put in to a kind of color bind, where he was sometimes perceived as too black for the white community and too white for the new generation of blacks.
     As Griffin attempts to explain it, black and liberal whites both had to rethink the world they had once imagined of an integrated society where there was no discrimination and racial injustice. Blacks had to stop bowing to white leaders and to take over their cause, particularly after the death of Martin Luther King, Jr., and, accordingly, wise whites, like Griffin, who had devoted their entire lives to race relations, had to abandon their roles as spokesmen for the black race. Those who could not, Griffin notes, became bitter, even accusing the numerous new black leaders as incompetent.
     In short, Griffin seems to have able to comprehend his important role in the battle of race justice with a sad sense of the consequences of the inability of his countrymen as a whole to actually perceive their continued racist behavior, sometimes even those who thought of themselves as the most enlightened in the their communities. The results, as we have had to come to terms with this year, seem almost prophetic given that Griffin composed his Epilogue to this book in 1977:

           Polarization. Separation. No one has wanted this, white or black.
           It has come because the things we dreamed of did not materialize.
           Many still hold the old dreams even while accepting today’s realties.

Los Angeles, July 13, 2015

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