Black Like Me

Title: Black Like Me
Author: John Howard Griffin
Publisher: Signet
Publishing Year: 2010 (50 year anniversary)
Pages: 208
My Rating: 4 out of 5 (1 meaning I hated the book, 5 meaning I loved the book)

Black Like Me is the story of John Howard Griffin, a writer who concerned about the plight of African Americans in the late 1950’s.  While pondering this complex issue, Griffin concluded that the only way to truly understand the difficulties blacks were facing was to become one himself and view this problem though an entirely different perspective.  After taking medication and applying some touch up materials, John Howard Griffin entered into the civil rights struggle as an African American.

At first, Griffin’s experiment seemed a bit troubling to me.  As he spoke about “entering into the world of the Negro” he seemed a bit detached.  It almost sounded like Jane Goddall talking about “entering into the world of the gorilla.”  Yet, after awhile I concluded that may have just been the case.  Even as a sympathetic white person, the oppression of African Americans was so great that it was entering into a entirely different world.  This seemed much greater than merely walking in another man’s shoes.

As the story unfolded I began to wonder if the effect of this book would be limited by its age.  In other words, this all took place during a time now long since gone.  Over fifty years has passed since this experiment took place.  Not have “whites only” signs vanished from our culture, but we have the first black President currently occupying the White House.  Yet, that fear would be proven wrong by about pages 40-46.  The basic theme of these pages centered on the question of why blacks can’t simply raise themselves out of the poverty to which they find themselves confined.  I have to admit, I’ve asked myself this question in this past.  In our free enterprise system, there is nothing stopping the diligent working looking to get ahead.  Now this is an issue that is still being discussed today.  Why are so many African Americans stuck in ghettos and poor housing areas when they have everything needed to pull themselves out of it.  Why do so many drop out of school?  Why do so many not have a job a resort to illegal activities in order to make their living?  From my perspective it seems simple.  Yet, had I been born into this situation myself, perhaps the questions would be different.  Why bother with education if the schools are poorly funded and there was no guarantee that it would lead to future employment?  How can I get a job and make an honest day’s pay if I walk into the interview already handicapped by my background and without the guarantee that I will even receive the same pay everyone around me gets?  Though times have certainly changed and things have certainly gotten better, some basic issues still have not been addressed or understood.

I was surprised at how relevant this book from 1959 would be.  For example, another question I’ve often wondered is why so many African Americans see racism everywhere around them.  It almost seems like paranoia.  Yet, the reality is, after a race has been enslaved and oppressed for hundreds of years, this type of behavior would be difficult to let go of because of its past (and perhaps present) justification.  It is hard for me to relate to a people whose basic human rights were taken away only because of the color of their skin.  When you consider conditions in Alabama and Mississippi, no wonder why so many still look over their shoulder.  If I were kidnapped and eventually released, a mere apology from my captor and a promise to do better would not stop the nightmares that may plague my sleep from that point forward.  A basic human trust has been broken and will not be repaired just because time passes by.

What I also struck me was the account of hitchhiking through Alabama.  As cars would stop, only at night, drivers were obsessed with the sexual activities of the black they picked up.  They would automatically assume the worst behavior in each African American they met.  It was assumed.  This caused me to consider my own preconceived ideas.  How many times have I assumed that most (not all – as if that were any less of a stereotype) lived in a thug-like atmosphere filled with hip-hop, loud talking and vulgar speech.   When you assume the worst about people, the assumption often becomes the perceived truth regardless of its validity.

Another shocking conclusion that I found while reading through this book was this shocking realization:  the very racists found within these pages were not klansmen dawned in white hoods.  There were “normal” people.  Had I been living within this context, these people could have been my neighbors, friends, fellow-church members, family, or even my own self.   The depravity of man will always shine through given the right opportunity.

The final thought I walked away with came the morning after I finished this book.  I was viewing a typical morning news program as the anchors debated the merits of President Obama’s proposed Buffet Rule which would force millionaires and billionaires to pay “their fare share” or at least give 30% of their income over to the government.  As a conservative I stand firmly against such an idea I deem to be socialist.  One of the talking head on the broadcast referred to this as class warfare.  That is when it hit me.  Here we have an African American President talking about social justice and income equality.  After having read this book, it struck me for the first time as to why these issues are so important to liberals and why modern civil rights leaders find themselves in that camp so often.  After hundreds of years of oppression, it is any wonder they are looking for equality from a government and culture that had denied them even the opportunity for advancement?  While I still find myself opposed to such policies, I can at least see why this is a sensitive issue that reaches far beyond the over-simplification that those on my side of the political equation may want to acknowledge.

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