Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Book Review - Black Like Me, by John Howard Griffin

In honor of Black History Month, I have finally read the book that I have been meaning to read for a long time but was afraid to. Black Like Me is, quite simply, the true story of a white man in 1959 who dyed himself black, lived in the Deep South for a few weeks, and gauged how people treated him. In his own words:

In order to make the test, I would alter my pigment and shave my head, but change nothing else about myself. I would keep my clothing, my speech patterns, my credentials, and I would answer every question truthfully. Therefore, if we did, as we claimed, judge each man by his quality as a human individual, my life as black John Howard Griffin would not be greatly changed, since I was that same human individual, altered only in appearance...I learned within a very few hours that no one was judging me by my qualities as a human individual and everyone was judging me by my pigment...They saw us as "different" from themselves in fundamental ways: we were irresponsible; we were different in our sexual morals; we were intellectually limited.


The book is to-the-point: it shows human beings' tendency to judge, and how judgment leads to violence and perversion of the soul. It is perhaps the most painful work of nonfiction I have ever read, rivaled only by Schindler's List, and even then I think Black Like Me affected me more, because its events are more recent and it took place in my own country rather than in Europe.

I can say little about the book except that everyone needs to read it. As much as it dwells on the subject of racism, it is also about vanity. Griffin noted that, during his travels, the number of people who were rude to him merely out of fear that they would be seen as being "nice" to black people, was just as great as the number of people who were rude to him out of some true conviction. Strange, how working to please other people can be just as misguided as working to please yourself.

I suppose the real question this work brings up, the question that will outlive all other issues Mr. Griffin wrote about, is that of one's "place" in the world. Is a person's destiny ever really set in stone? When a baby is born, can that baby really grow up to be anyone, and accomplish anything, with the right upbringing? It is so easy to judge people in this world, and I know I have done plenty of judging myself. A friend of mine once told me that charity is ultimately counterproductive, because there have always been poor people and always will be. I can only respond by saying this: imagine it's you.

And, yes, I understand the irony of reading the writings of a white man in honor of Black History Month. It's a strange world.

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