“Rest at pale evening…/A tall slim tree…/Night coming tenderly/Black like me.” “Dream Variations” by Langston Hughes.
Having heard vaguely of this title for quite a few years, I finally remembered to track down a copy of it at the library the other day. What a read (and this is me in the twenty-first century. I can only *imagine* the fuss it created when it was released in 1960!)
If you’re not sure about the plot of this NF book, John Howard Griffin, a white journalist from Mansfield, Texas, wanted to bring attention to the ongoing plight of the black American in the Deep South, and to do that, decided to work with a dermatologist to take medicine (usually for vitiligo) in such large quantities that it would substantially darken his skin (along with up to fifteen hours/day under a sun lamp).
Now under contract from Sepia Magazine (focused on a African-American reading audience), once Griffin believed that he had the same skin tone as an African-American man, he left his home with wife and children in order to travel across Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Arkansas and Mississippi to experience for himself the pain of life under racial segregation across the country for six weeks.
(And although most people believe that Griffin was the first man to undertake this experiment, it had actually been previously done before by journalist Ray Sprigle in 1949 published as a book called “In the Land of Jim Crow” but not to as much fanfare when it was published as Griffin’s work. And, interestingly, a little later a white female investigative journalist called Grace Halsell also lived for a time as a black women and wrote the book “Soul Sister” about her experience (1969), according to Wiki.)
Back to Griffin: This was an eye-opening read for me, in some ways because I was amazed at some of the things that Griffin was surprised at during his first few days as a “black” man: “Black people sweat like white people!” Woah. Did people really think there were any differences in this???
But then these slightly clumsy starting points were balanced with the truly difficult time Griffin had adapting to his new image in the mirror. Griffin actually uses the narrative tool of looking at his reflection in the mirror several times throughout the book in a very clever way to demonstrate how he gradually adapts to his new skin color until towards the end of his time when he reported that he was quite used to seeing himself that way.
::: Time passes as I think about how to write this review some more. :::
::: More time passes. I’m still thinking… :::
(You know this is actually a really difficult review to write. I’m torn between just reporting the material that I read in the actual book and how the whole sociological experiment looks to me through my modern eyes…
OK. I’ll do it this way: since you can easily look up for yourself the plot and details of the book, I’m going to tell you what I ended up thinking about this read:…)
I think that, most of all, it’s really important to keep foremost in your mind the time in history when this experiment was completed and when the book was actually written. It was in the late 1950s (1959, actually) in the U.S. at a time when racial relations were at a low (understatement) and when segregation was rampant throughout both the North and the South (but slowly being removed from the northern states).
It was also at the start of the years which would bring the most change:
- Brown vs. the Board of Education happened in May, 1954 when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that racial segregation in public schools violated the 14th Amendment of “separate but equal”. (This was about desegregation of schools. See below.)
- 1955, teenager Emmett Till, a 14-year old boy from Chicago, allegedly whistled and made a remark to a white woman, leading to two white men dragging Till from his uncle’s house, beating him and then shooting him to death before throwing him in the river. An all-white jury acquitted the two men of any murder charges…
- 1955, a month after Till’s death, the Montgomery, Alabama’s citywide boycott would begin (with Rosa Parks) and spearheaded by a group called the Montgomery Improvement Association led by a young man called — Martin Luther King, Junior…
- 1957 was when Melba Pattillo Beals and eight other teenagers integrated Little Rock’s Central High School… (See Warriors Don’t Cry review for this…)
- 1960, the four black students refuse to move from the Woolworth’s whites-only lunch counter… and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) was founded in Raleigh that same year.
- 1961 saw the start of the Freedom Rides and 1963 was Martin Luther King, Junior’s speech, “I Have a Dream” which paved the way for the 1964 Civil Rights Act…
- NOTE: (African-American women wouldn’t get the right to vote until 1965 when the Voting Rights Act was passed, five years after Griffin’s book had been published. Shirley Chisholm, the first African-American women elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, was elected in 1968, eight years after this book’s publication.) (Compare with now ref: redlining, redistricting and voter registration issues… Grrr.)
So when the book was published, America was starting to get apprehensive in terms of race relations, and in fact, in Griffin’s book, he makes several mentions of how tense the situation feels on the streets in general…
(In fact, take a look at the Langston Hughes poem that is given at the start of this post (and at the start of the book)…
And – if you’re interested, take a look at how the music culture is being impacted around now, and you can see how this tension ratcheting up throughout the country played out via that avenue: Mahalia Jackson, Chuck Berry, John Coltrane (and including some white musicians as well: Bob Dylan etc.) – and then later with James Brown’s “Say it Loud: I’m Black and I’m Proud”, Curtis Mayfield’s “People Get Ready”, Aretha Franklin’s “Respect”…
And also drama and plays: Raisin in the Sun (Lorraine Hansberry) was published in 1959, for example, while To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) and Guess Who’s Coming for Dinner (film with Sydney Poitier et al.) (1967) were released a bit later.
It’s a fascinating read especially when you look at how all these changes in American society and cultural mores were happening at the same time (or around that time)…
(NOTE: I am certainly not an expert on this, but there is plenty of info online for further information… Highly recommend you do some further reading if you’re interested in learning more.)
For more reading:
- If you’re wanting to read the original “Life as a Negro: Journey into Shame” by John Howard Griffin (multi-part article at Sepia Magazine).
- John Howard Griffin was a fascinating man. See his bio here (Wiki).
And for how it’s viewed 50 years later: