Book Review: Black Like Me

After hearing about Black Like Me in Lynn Thaler’s review, I just knew I had to read it. The book was written in 1959 by John Griffin, a wealthy white man from Texas. The writer goes on a journey to discover what it truly means to be black in the 1950s deep South. But he knows he’s not going to get a true picture of the situation as a white man. So, he decides to become ‘black’ through a series of medication, sun lamps and skin dye.

At first, I was sceptical about the book, and the author. Did he really manage to convince people he was black? There are some pictures in the book but since they’re low quality, bad-angle, black and white photos, it’s hard to tell. Was he nuts? Did he actually go to the South in what amounts to blackface? I was also sceptical of his motives. Perhaps he genuinely wanted to know what black people were experiencing, but did he also want to appropriate black culture? Did he actually care about the people he was writing about or was it all for the realization of some twisted fantasy? And since he himself was writing the book, how much of his conversations with black folk could be considered true and accurate?

Nonetheless, the story is intriguing. It usually takes me a year to read a book; this one I read in two days. It gives valuable insights into the black experience in the 1950s deep South from the murder of Mack Parker, to the Civil Rights Movement and the assassination of Martin Luther King, to the changing cultural landscape as blacks fought for equality in an exhausting, never-ending tug-o-war with whites determined to maintain the status quo which kept them on top.

From a 21st century perspective, it’s easy to find fault with this book: he wears blackface, he calls blacks “negros”, women are viewed as subordinate citizens. Perhaps this is why the story is rarely promoted in this era. But logically we should take its 1950s origins into account. Griffin was probably about as enlightened as a middle-class, middle-aged, white man from Texas could be for the time.

Griffin admits he initially had some prejudices about blacks as a result of his upbringing and the lies he’d been told. By experiencing life as a black man and through the kindness he received from the black community, these negative beliefs soon disappeared. It’s obvious from reading the book that he did care about the suffering of blacks in the South. He notices many prejudices that are so ingrained for whites that few would consider them, especially in the 1950s, and he explains how he repeatedly tried to get whites to wake up to their conditioning.

This book was written before the Civil Rights Movement and at a time when blacks were still heavily segregated in the South with their own water fountains, rest rooms, cafes and so forth. Blacks were considered to have ‘equal (but separate) rights’ – this was an illusion. The mere right to eat, live and breathe were as thin and precarious as eggshells. One wrong look, one raised voice, one sudden movement and a black person could find themselves on the receiving end of a lynch mob with their ‘rights’ nowhere to be found.

As you read Black Like Me, you’re hit with the reality that this could easily be a book written about racial inequality today. His first stop is New Orleans, a relatively “cosmopolitan” city for the time but nonetheless still a place where black people lived in poverty and experienced mass discrimination. The black people he meets lament the fact that their children see little point in education because it does not grant them the same opportunities as white children. The author describes the black children’s futures as being “mutilated” by the poverty and racism they are subjected to. It’s painful to read how much black parents had to sacrifice just to try and give their children opportunities. One man sent his children out of the South to receive education, saying how he would never see them again. For their own sake, he didn’t want them to return.

There are many parallels between the reality for blacks in the 1950s and blacks today. Griffin describes (updated version) how, in the late 1960s, black communities started to grow concerned for young black males, fearing that their lack of positive public role models could cause them to feel hopeless about their futures. When the author talks about the problems of black poverty in the South, one can’t help but think that it sounds just like the struggles many blacks go through today. Black kids can’t get a decent education or jobs, people can’t afford to buy a house or get a mortgage, or live a decent life. Nothing has changed in nearly 70 years.

The book is intended for white people; it makes us come face-to-face with the reality of ourselves. Racism is not always obvious… on his experiences travelling through New Orleans as a black man, Griffins notes: “My first vague, favorable impression… came from courtesies of the whites towards [blacks] in New Orleans. But this was superficial. All the courtesies in the world do not cover up the one vital and massive discourtesy – that [blacks are] treated not even as a second-class citizen, but as a tenth-class one”
The book displays the constant low-key racism he encountered at every turn: after a very long day of walking around in search of work, the author takes a bus back to his hostel. But the bus driver doesn’t let him off at his stop and continues for a further 8 blocks until white people want to get off, only then does he allow Griffin to get off.

He describes how polarized his experiences where as a black man than they had been as a white man. At one stop on his journey, he received a venomously hateful glare from a ticket seller when he politely asks to buy a ticket: “I was truly dumbfounded by this deep fury that possessed her… I framed the question in my mind: ‘Pardon me, but have I done something to offend you?’ But I realized I had done nothing – my color offended her.”

Every action becomes difficult and fraught with danger: cashing travellers’ cheques, using a restroom, getting a bus, finding a cafe to eat in or some place to get a drink of water, a hotel to sleep, somewhere to sit, having to pause to scan everyplace for a ‘colored’ sign so he didn’t accidentally use the wrong facilities. And these facilities always seemed to be miles out of the way while the white facilities were conveniently located. He describes the constant minefield and the delicate balance in navigating daily life as a person of color. He couldn’t believe how a person “could deprive another of anything so basic as the need to quench thirst or use the rest room.” He felt as though he had entered “some strange country suspended in ugliness.” You feel his frustration of walking 10 miles in the blistering heat only to not be able to sit down or use a rest room. But at the same time, the knowledge that he is in fact a white man does not escape the reader. Help is always just a phone call away.

His experiences could never be fully real because he was insulated by his inner whiteness. If in any real danger, he could have revealed himself as white, he could have removed the ‘black’. The people he wrote about could not. Several times he mentions how if only the racist white people had known he was white, they would surely have been ashamed of themselves! All this state is that they would have behaved differently towards him as a white man than a black man, something the reader already figured.

Occasionally, the writer excuses the racist behaviour of white people as “individual act[s]… not typical.” Some reviewers feel he is too lenient regarding the behaviour of whites. Certainly, this is true in some parts but you get the feeling Griffin was an optimist who wanted to see the best in all people. However, he states how depressed and disappointed he was to encounter yet another racist white on his travels, and to find one who treated him as an equal was nothing short of a miracle! Numerous times he exposes the dark underbelly of white society.

He describes the curiosity of many white men towards black males who they viewed as hypersexed. He notes the perversion these white men had for black women and girls. How they would pay a handsome sum to have sex with under-aged black girls and were obsessed with black sexuality. In Alabama, he encounters a truck driver who proudly proclaims to have purposely hired black women so he could have sex with them, and if they refused his advances, they didn’t get paid.

Despite their racism, many white men in the South thought it was just fine to rape black women who they had no regard for. Black women were considered the property of black men, and by raping them the white men could assuage their own sexual insecurities.

“It shows humans in such an inhuman light. You see a kind of insanity, something so obscene the very obscenity of it terrifies you.”

A snapshot of the time takes us to Mississippi and the murder of Mack Charles Parker, a black male accused of raping a white woman. While awaiting trial, police officers, who had already beaten him severely, allowed an angry mob into his jail cell. He was further beaten before being taken by car to a bridge where he was shot and then his lifeless body was thrown into the water below. He was 23. No one was ever brought to justice despite the perpetrators being named and known. The KKK won that day in Mississippi just like it had on many other days before.

Whites saw blacks as “a different species… akin to an animal.”

It’s clear from the book that, for many blacks, life in the South was just a seemingly endless continuation of slavery. Temporary freedom only came in the form of escapism – drink, drugs and sex; permanent freedom only in the form of death.

In Mississippi, Griffin’s fear of staying in the ghetto meant he didn’t even stay one night, depriving the reader of what would have been a very interesting perspective of black Mississippi life during this fraught time. But, understandably, the author is concerned for his welfare, just as any of us would be in the same shoes. A call to a white friend gives him a place to stay for the night. A luxury no black had.

He eventually decides to visit a safer coastal town in Mississippi instead, however again he doesn’t spend much time there and stays out of the fray. He further has the luxury of staying with another white friend and his wealth meant he wasn’t relying on work to feed him. He didn’t know what it was truly like to be black in Mississippi. He didn’t know what it was like to have no choices, to have to find work before he could eat, to have to sleep in the loud, dangerous ghetto every night in fear of his life.

In Mobile, white companies made it as difficult as possible for blacks to get jobs or earn decent money in the hope they would then leave the area. The whites knew it was only a matter of time before equality would break through. When that day came, they wanted to make sure there were no blacks in the neighborhood for them to be forced to hire. Meanwhile, the working blacks in Mobile were kept in constant debt, never earning enough to make something of their lives.

He talks about the severe injustice blacks in Mississippi faced every day, the worries for their futures, the fear of lynch mobs, the hatred of their inhumane treatment. He describes the Valentino blacks and the shade envy. The blacks who denounced their own race because they saw it as a cage, preventing them from ever being free. He describes how they would live and die never knowing what it was like to simply go in a decent-looking café – luxuries “separated from [them] by only a door”.

As you read the pages, you feel the poison of hate and racism, mainly from the whites, but also from some blacks who understandably cursed the whites for their endless misery. He describes the way blacks had to be polite to the whites even in the face of outright aggression, for fear of reprisals.

Over in Mississippi, blacks paid taxes for services only whites could use, such as the beaches. Black men were not permitted to vote. They had every legal right to do so, but the whites, who controlled everything, found various ways to intimidate them or invalidate their votes. Even if they could have voted, it’s not as if they had their own representation among the candidates. Their choice would have been between one white supremacist or another.

There were two types of whites at this time: racist and shameful. Some might say all were guilty of contributing to the ill treatment of blacks. There were occasional whites who spoke out against the cruelty but they could not rid the blacks of their predicament. “Significantly, this was considered high treason”. A white showing support for blacks could lose everything: their job, house, family, even their life. But this was a price that some whites felt necessary to pay in order to bring awareness of Southern black living conditions to the rest of the world. However, the racism was too prolific, too deeply rooted for it to be easily destroyed.

Some whites would, intentionally or otherwise, patronize the blacks, pretending to be their friend (if no other whites were around to see) but would reduce themselves to racist insults at a moment’s notice. Most whites where cowards in front of their own people, afraid to rock the boat or show compassion to blacks for fear of the repercussions.

Griffin surmises that due to the lack of genuine communication between the races, blacks understand whites as much as whites understand blacks. If something isn’t done “it will be a senseless tragedy of ignorant against ignorant, injustice answering injustice – a holocaust that will drag down the innocent… then we will all pay”. “No one [is] free” until justice works for all people, not just white people. But those conversations are difficult to have with so much history, hatred and pain between the two races. Griffin comments that whites aren’t ready to hear the truth, nor listen for that matter. His comments were made in the 1960s but apply just as easily to the current situation.

He speaks of the changes brought about by Martin Luther King, the hope that one man gave to a nation, and the effects of the Civil Rights Movement, how it helped, but did not cure, the sickness. The movement was the worst time, he claims, because racial tensions were so high that people feared a new holocaust. He states how some white Civil Rights supporters did more harm than good, because their idea of helping blacks was to turn them into “imitation whites”.

He indicated that, towards the late 1960s, what helped the most was black people gradually taking ownership of their communities, running black banks, owning and supporting black businesses, building black schools with black teachers and black history. Whether this is an adequate solution, I don’t know.

Having now read the book, it seems obvious from the words on the pages that Griffin had decent intentions. He saw the problem – maybe not all of it, but enough of it – he wanted to expose it, and he did. Through his story, white people can learn some aspects of the daily discrimination blacks have to endure. We can never fully understand, but even some understanding helps us to realize our privilege and our prejudice.

“I believe that before we can truly dialogue with one another we must first perceive intellectually… that there is no Other – that the Other is simply Oneself in all the significant essentials. This alone is the key that can unlock the prison… neutralize the poisons of the stereotype that allow [people] to go on benevolently justifying their abuses against humanity.”

As an aside, I wish someone would make a movie based on this book. One was made in the 1960s but is typical of many from the time: cheaply made, overdramatized, badly acted, badly produced, and badly directed. Furthermore, the white actor in blackface is unrealistic, obviously white and even ‘acts’ extremely white in the role. There have been many great movies in recent years to cast a spotlight on racial inequality and I think this movie could be added to such a list if it were remade in an appropriate and sensitive way.

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