Black Like Me – John Howard Griffin (1960)

“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).

Belzoni, Mississippi – showing the Colored entrance at the back of the building.

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:

And for how it’s viewed 50 years later:

For Her Own Good: Two Centuries of the Experts’ Advice to Women – Barbara Ehrenreich and Deidre English (1978/2005)

Continuing with my ongoing goal of reading from my own TBR (ha!), I pulled down this title. I’ve read Ehrenreich NF before (such as Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America [pre-blog]) so I knew to expect a well-written and pretty thoroughly researched non-fiction read from her (and the co-author), but what I was really impressed about was the breadth (and depth) of this look of women’s health (and the accompanying [mostly male] advisers. 

So – what is this book about? It’s an almost academic survey of how the health of women (and thus women themselves) have been on the receiving end of very questionable “scientific” advice over the years, and since it was a large overview of a long period of time, it was interesting to see the general patterns of the authoritarian (mostly male) through the years. 

For example, it’s pretty well known that the Victorian woman was treated as though she was an infantile imbecile by the males (and some females) in her life, but it was amusing to see how the advice from the “scientific experts” evolved from this to the Edwardian woman (who was told that her whole life was to produce children but then hand them over to a nanny or similar) to the next generation of women who were advised to treat their children via the whole “children should be seen but not heard” paradigm, to another stage when the foci of the family was to please the child first and foremost… and so it continues.

I am hoping that the most recent trend of viewing children as “equal” in power to (or sometimes with more power than) the parents will end soon, as I am seeing the result of that in some of the college students in my classroom at times. 

(The Helicopter parent has now been replaced by the Lawnmower parent, it seems. Lawnmower parents do more than the hovering of the Helicopter parent: the Lawnmower group actually leap into their adult child’s life and mow down any obstacles for their kid. Thus, the analogy of the Lawnmower… Of course, I’m not asserting that every parent does this, but it is common enough to be a “thing” in higher ed.) 

The “expert advice” for women has also evolved in tandem with the evolution and maturation of science as a discipline, since according to Ehrenreich, almost every piece of advice has been painted with the color (and authority) of science, whether it was crud or not. People followed what these “experts” recommended, regardless of how wacky the advice was. (This also follows with the notion that women were also infantile and did not have the wherewithal to make their own health decisions.) 

(Thinking about it, it’s a horrifyingly interesting exercise to see how this is playing out right now in some of the states and their recent (anti-)abortion laws. Women are still being told how to control their bodies by large legislative bodies of ill-informed men. Plus ca change…)

So, anyway, I really enjoyed this provocative (in terms of “thought-creating”) read, and if you’re interested in medicine, in women’s issues, in medical history… you’d enjoy this title. 

(Note though that this book was originally written in 1978, but the text has been updated in pieces. The updating is a little patchy in places, but overall, it’s a really interesting read as both a piece of history and an overview of social issues.) 

The Making of Home – Judith Flanders (2014)

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I’m always really curious about the social history of places and times: how did people live then? Under what conditions? What did they do each day, and what did their houses look like?

With that said, it’s little wonder that I really enjoyed a recent read of historian Judith Flanders’ work called The Making of Home: The 500-Year Story of How our Houses Became our Homes which covers exactly that topic, huge as it is.

Flanders is a social historian with several titles to her credit, including Consuming Passions: Leisure and Pleasure in Victorian Britain (see review here), The Victorian House: Domestic Life from Childbirth to Deathbed (see review here), and one or two in the TBR pile (The Invention of Murder and The Victorian City: Everyday Life in Dickens’ London). Obviously, I enjoy her writing and what she has to say…

The idea that “home” is a special place, a separate place, a place where we can be our true selves, is too obvious to us today that we barely pause to think about it. But… “home” is a relatively new concept.

As usual, this book is so chock-full of interesting (to me) points, I ended up with a bullet list of curious facts, so hopefully, that will work for you.

  • The concept of having a “chairman/woman” on a committee or in a company stems from the fact that early in history, furniture was really expensive and out of reach for many families. If they did have enough disposable income to buy something, they might only have the cash to buy one chair (instead of a set).* Thus, if you review early paintings of domestic settings (such as in the seventeenth century), you may notice that a family may only have one chair in the room. As this was typically the father’s or husband’s place (since he was considered the most important person in the group), he got to sit in the chair. Thus, the chairman. 🙂
  • Bedding was a huge chunk of a family’s budget when starting out. For a family in the 18th century, there are records that show they paid more than a quarter of their total household income for bedding and furniture, so it was a huge investment for the average family.
  • Beds usually only had flour sacks of hay (or straw) as the mattress, and families sometimes put up to five flour sacks of hay on top of each other to give more padding. (I’m wondering if this is where the origin of the Princess and the Pea fairy tale came from…)
  • Families were all up on the latest household fashions. For example, pendulum clocks were invented in 1657. Two decades after that, almost no Dutch families owned a similar clock. Four decades after its invention, nine out of ten families owned one. And thus the world turns…
  • In 1727 in Bath, it was quite common for a middle class family to own a table, cooking pots, and a mirror, but curiously, the great majority of these same households didn’t own a cup or even knives and forks.
  • For middle class pioneer families in the US during this same time, they lagged behind their British counterparts in terms of household goods: it was very common for pioneer families out west to live in a similar fashion to the lifestyle of English families one century earlier. (Couldn’t exactly go shopping very often and didn’t have much disposable income.)
  • The history of cups and saucers: When tea was first imported to UK, the Chinese style of tea-cup with no handle was fine for how the tea was served (lukewarm). However, when the Brits started to like their tea really hot (as now), the previously handle-free cups were unsuitable and thus, handles were added to the cup. When Brits started adding milk to the tea, there was a need for a bigger cup, and when sugar came into the pic, tea drinkers needed a small spoon to put the sugar into the drink, so thus teaspoons. Teaspoons led to saucers, as a place to rest your spoon whilst you drank your tea. Huh.
  • In the Middle Ages, guests were expected to bring their own knives and forks (instead of the hosting family providing them). They were considered as personal items. Knives were originally round-ended, and thus one could not spear your food to eat it. Instead, forks were developed to spear your food once you’d cut it with your knife. Most middle class people just ate with a knife and a spoon which they would bring with them when they traveled.
  • The British Navy refused to accept use of forks until 1897.
  • Seventeenth century England houses commonly only had one fireplace in one room, and heat was seen as a luxury more than a necessity. (What were they thinking? Have you been to England in December and January? Brrrr.)

And there’s so much more, that if this type of social history whets your whistle, I think that you’ll like Flanders and her work. Plus – the bibliography is lengthy and I added quite a few new titles to my ever-expanding TBR list.

Anyway, thoroughly enjoyed this read, and now I’m very grateful for central heating. 🙂

* When Superhero and I were young marrieds, we only had enough money to buy a dining room table. (We didn’t have enough to buy the matching chairs, so for quite a few months, we only had two non-matching dining table director’s chairs.) The next Christmas, we saved up and got the matching set. Baby steps, amirite?

Added for reference:

If you like this sort of book, here are some other domestic/social history books that I’ve read in case you’re looking to add to the ol’ TBR pile. (Obvs, I like Flanders!):

The Nether World – George Gissing (1889)

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The Nether World is a Victorian perspective on the underground world of those mired in poverty and for whom there is little to no way out of their precarious situations. It’s not a happy read at all, and in fact, it’s rather hard to keep going at times as the sheer grind of hopelessness and filth never ever ends. However, I imagine that this is a more realistic depiction of how life was for the Victorian underclass of London and other large cities. Dickens also covered these lives of the unlucky masses, but at least he would tip the scales every now and then with some levity. Gissing – not so much.

It’s also a tale of intrigue covering, as it does, the possibility of inherited wealth from an elderly man, but as immediate wealth tends to do, it leads to unhappiness for many of those who believe that they may be in line to receive it. The world that Gissing’s characters inhabit is unrelenting in its tough life for each of the characters; there is no future to look forward to, just the day-to-day needs of food, water, and a roof over your head, and despite how grinding these descriptions were, I think it was actually these pictures that pulls you as the reader into the lives of these unfortunate people. Most of the characters have not done anything to deserve these hard lives – it was just an unlucky twist of birth and geography that seems to have thrown the majority of the people into these situations.

Still, despite the oppressiveness of this lack of resources, families still stick together (not always happily), and most people work and continue to live their lives even if they do end up living at the bottom of the financial pile with few options to escape out of their worlds.

Gissing was a naturalistic writer (i.e. didn’t sugar-coat things and has a strong sense of location), and this is demonstrated by the way that the entire book is set in this dark poor world. No one escapes to the world of money. People dream of doing so, but their dreams end up thwarted, and I imagine that this POV echoes reality of the time: how does someone born into poverty escape it without getting money for education, useful work experience, knowing the right people? (Not so different from nowadays, one could argue…)

As a rather long book for me (404 pages), this title clearly falls into the Scary Big Book category but as I have learned to read huge-page-count projects on my ancient Kindle (as opposed to a physical copy), it wasn’t nearly as overwhelming as it might have been. (I tend to get rather intimidated by large page numbers – not by the content, just the numbers. Nutty, I know.) If I’m honest though, I must admit that the middle bit was rather b-o-r-i-n-g and the number of characters was a bit confusing at times. Uncertain whether to blame the author or me about that!

So – a rather glum read overall. I’ve read other Gissing’s (New Grub Street and The Odd Women), but I think I might be done with him now…

Life in the English Country House: A Social and Architectural History – Mark Girouard (1978)

As you know, I am (somewhat) addicted to social and domestic history of people and places, especially Britain/England, so I was really excited when this huge book arrived from the ILL system.

This is a solidly researched book on the social and architectural history of the English country house from the Middle Ages to 1940 by an acclaimed historian so you know it’s going to be good. With plenty of illustrations and some colored plates (along with citations), I found this to be a fascinating source for learning about the world of the stately home and how it has evolved over time. For example, in the 1700’s, the technology was available for indoor plumbing for bathrooms etc., but few houses implemented them as they were not in fashion yet. (!) This was also supported by the fact that servants were plentiful and fairly cheap, so it was easy to get hot water in small quantities brought to wherever you happened to be in the house.  (I am such a fan of working indoor plumbing that this is hard for me to imagine. “It was out of fashion???” Perhaps if I had plenty of servants, it would be different.) Some families even went backwards in innovation and moved things to the outhouse down the garden to “get closer to the natural state”… (This is beyond my understanding, I am afraid. I can’t imagine trudging through the wet and dark at night in winter to go out of choice.)

As new fashions and trends occurred in architecture and interior design, the stately homes were usually lagging far behind the trend setters in London (see above: indoor plumbing and below re: transportation.) The eighteenth century and early nineteenth century also bought about the inventions of more effective heating and lighting (the lighting was more after 1880). Having visited numerous stately homes in winter during my life and times, I can attest to the fact that these places can be remarkably drafty and cold. I can only imagine what it was like living in a huge drafty house with no widespread heating or lighting. My experience with keeping warm with a real open fire is too hot on one side, and too cold on the other. I grew up in a wonderful Victorian house, but the radiators for the central heating were placed under the windows… Why? All the heat went up and out the windows right away, leaving you with blue fingers and crouched in front of a small electric fire. Plus – it cost a lot to heat the house (well, you know: since the heat went out the windows…)

The nineteenth century set the stage for the Industrial Revolution and the unrest caused by the ripples from the on-going French Revolution. France being not so far from England, this revolution worried the British upper classes a bit, and so, cognizant of the possibility of uprising, the rich families hosted large and extravagant parties, both for their friends and for their tenants and local villagers – “keep the little people happy” idea. There were picnics in the grounds which catered to two thousand people or more sometimes, so these were not little affairs with a glass of orange squash and a Jaffa Cake on a blanket.

In the early years, these houses were very isolated due to the poor roads, the uncomfortable and dangerous carriage rides and how long each journey took. (They were very slow as roads were frequently muddy and circuitous along with the ever-present danger of being robbed by highwaymen.) As the infrastructure improved, the roads became smoother and easier to use during bad weather, and springs were introduced into the design of carriages (making a faster smoother more comfortable ride) which led to there being more interaction between these country houses and London. This meant that fashions began to change a lot quicker than they had before as word traveled more quickly than before and it was easier to bring fabric and new furniture to the country.

As the book went on, I realized that it must really be quite hard for untrained observers of architecture to quickly and accurately identify the age of a building through its style, as so often architectural styles adopted fashions from years ago, doing a faux style (e.g. the Victorians loved Gothic/Tudor/Elizabethan styles as these were thought to be indicative of the style of “old style English gentleman”…)

Speaking of Victorians, they were obsessed with efficiency (linking it with morality and superiority) and so this affected the design of new houses and the additions onto older existing ones (e.g. separate wings for the servants etc.). As the years went by, the fashion changed from forced communal living (everyone – including the servants – eating at the same time in the Great Hall, for example) to more privacy for those who were in the family (and away from the servants).

It was also important to separate the genders (especially the servants as they were less “civilized” and so were more affected by animal instincts…) – houses tended to have women servants’ quarters on one side of the house and the men’s on the other. This did lead to one Achilles’ heel though for the Victorian Morality Crew: the laundry room at this time was often placed on the edge of the house as it was noisy, steamy and smelly; this led to the (female) servants doing the laundry developing more independence as they were further away from supervision. Additionally, the laundry rooms were on the outside of the house (usually close to the stables) and so this meant that non-laundry servants also had access to them (especially those naughty grooms in the nearby stables)… Thus, the Achilles’ heel idea for the moral Victorian family.

Interestingly enough, tobacco also had an influence on the design of country houses and their architecture, coming to popularity with Prince Albert (who was German and Germany loved cigars) and then naughty hedonistic Edward VII when he was Prince of Wales. During the last half of the nineteenth century, this trend led to the introduction of separate smoking rooms in large houses, and they were seen as very masculine and a “safety valve” for the men to be themselves without the social restrictions of women around. Any refusal to join a smoking party was considered to be very rude.  Woman had their own room where they would go to once the men had left the dining room to smoke. Of course, this was the feminine version and would be decorated accordingly. (This room might have been the drawing or “with”drawing room at some point.)

 To keep up with stately house life and society, a magazine called “Country Life” was started in the late 1890’s when it was particularly widespread among the upper classes that the life of the English country gentleman was the best life of all. I vividly remember when I was growing up that my father would have a subscription to Country Life magazine which featured articles on country houses and also listed any that were for sale. I don’t know why my father took the subscription: I know he was particularly interested in local history and architecture with perhaps a smidgen of desire for such a life himself.  (Well, who wouldn’t?…)

Very interesting book although I do have to admit that I sort of skipped over the Middle Ages bit to get to the juicy stuff.  Definitely my shortcoming as opposed to that of the author.