Black Like Me is a ground breaking essay resulting from a white man’s journey into the experience of being black in America’s deep south. The journey began in 1959 and resulted in a series of magazine articles and subsequent book. John Howard Griffin wrote plainly and journalistically about the preparation, experience and aftermath. Now republished as “The Definitive John Howard Griffin Estate Edition,” it includes six new sections.
My older brother was in high school in the 60s and exposed me to this book as it was likely required course reading. In 1967 I recall our family in Bracebridge with my grandfather as we waited on tenterhooks for my Houston Aunt and family crossing the border at Detroit when a volatile tinderbox erupted. They made it through and we rejoiced.
Upon rereading, I recalled Griffin’s journey and hardship endured. This edition helped shed a whole new light, given current calls for renewed action regarding civil rights. I refer to the on camera sadistic murder of George Floyd, as well as a few other recent brutal annihilations which have once again incited discomfort and unrest in the black community and beyond. Only this time we know the perpetrators.
In particular the inclusion of Epilogue 1976 helped shed light on developments and emotions since 1960.
“Our experience with the Nazis had shown one thing: where racism is practised, it damages the whole community, not just the victim group.”
Griffin reported white supporters being ostracised in their own communities for their support of the civil rights movement, character assassinations in attempts to subdue support, police going beyond the code of law subjecting both white and black citizens to fierce scrutiny and harassment.
There was a surge of broad public support which, along with non-violent protests, led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., eventually lead to the controversial civic rights bill of 1964, which then lead to the voting rights bill of 1965.
“It is true that hope and determination now largely replaced the old despair and that was in itself a tremendous advance. But still the problems of daily living for the vast majority of black men had not changed.”
Most libraries, public and private, did not subscribe to black publications. The white public therefore only received biased viewpoints. The movement was misled into believing they were really communicating.
It seems that a black man could say something and ask for something but would not be believed or listened to. The same thing from the mouth of a white man would be applauded. Black leaders were consistently forgotten, or worse, ignored, when civic leaders wanted to address what they perceived as their “black problem.”
Tensions mounted and leaders who consulted experts such as Griffin were cautioned about fomenting unrest, yet leaders responded that advisors were being unduly pessimistic and regarded warnings as a threat. In 1967 the powder keg exploded.
Outbreaks of anger and pain resulted in rioting, murder, and repression and overtook the USA, a nation whose principal tenet was “All men are created equal.”
“Black people began to truly believe that this country was really moving toward genocide … The day was past when black people wanted any advice from white men.”