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:

Native Son – Richard Wright (1940)

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…they needed a certain picture of the world; there was one way of living they preferred above all others; and they were blind to what did not fit. They did not want to see what others are doing if that doing did not feed their own desires. All one had to do was to be bold, do something nobody had thought of…

Richard Wright’s novel, Native Son, is one heckuva powerful novel to read, and I can’t believe that it’s not more common in required reading lists for English classes, because it brings up so many discussion points: racism, housing, poverty, education, perseverance… And the writing… It was just great.

To back up a little, let me explain how this title was chosen in the first place. February is African American (or Black) History Month in the U.S., which is I think an important public recognition of the contributions of the African-American people over the years.

I have been wanting to add more POC authors and topics to my TBR, and thus, this reading project was born.

Native Son is a novel that covers the journey of one Bigger Thomas, raised in one room with a single mother and two other siblings, and one of thousands who lived in on the South Side of Chicago (or the Black Belt as Wright describes it). It’s the late 1930’s, and Bigger (like a lot of other people) had stopped his education early due to having to work to support his family. It was during one of the gaps in employment when the crux of this whole matter arises.

Bigger is selected by one of the wealthy philanthropists to get trained to be his chauffeur. It’s win-win for everyone it seems: the rich people feel better for “saving” one of the many poor people, and the guy in the job gets to feed his family. What could possibly go wrong?

Surrounded by desperate people with little access to resources, Bigger is skirting the edge of crime, but it’s not until one night that he actually crosses over into that dark world. After accidentally committing murder one night with someone in his employer’s family, Bigger finds a freedom in himself and his life that he had never experienced before. And once someone has tasted freedom after years of being in chains, it’s very hard to go back…

 “No Negro exists who does not have his private Bigger Thomas living in his skull.”

The novel is divided into three separate parts (Flight, Fear, Fate) and time is very compressed in the story. The whole book’s action happens only over a couple of weeks, and it’s compelling to see Bigger’s life journey as it just spirals and spirals down.

wright_richardWright uses an omniscient POV, so readers can see what everyone is thinking as the narrative progresses, and it’s a really good writing choice to use this as you get to understand the motivations of each person in the story balanced with what the rest of the world sees. The world only sees the actions and reactions of the characters, and without the access to the characters’ thoughts, you can see how things can go very very wrong.

So – to the story itself: Bigger takes the new job eagerly, and meets his employers who allow him to have a room in their big house. You never really know when you might need a chauffeur, and the married couple who hired him thinks themselves very big-hearted to take a boy out of the South Side. Indeed, they have done a lot for the African-American community, donating millions of dollars to black schools, and training centers.

On the first night of his first day of chauffeuring, Bigger takes Mary, the (white) daughter of the house to a party elsewhere, where she stays for a while and picks up a male friend, and then they cruise around, reluctant to go home. Both Mary and her new friend are progressive for the time, so when they want to stop and get a drink or two, they naturally invite Bigger in with them to have a drink as well.

After a while, it gets to be very late and Mary needs to get back to sleep as she’s traveling out of town the next day. She is, however, completely wasted from all the alcohol she’s been drinking, and after dropping her friend off, Bigger is forced to help Mary into the house and put her to bed. No big deal, except that this was 1930’s Chicago, smack in the middle of Jim Crow laws, and “negros” didn’t go into young white lady’s bedrooms at three in the morning.

And then the story ricochets from there, and you go along willingly for the wild ride. Bigger ends up being accused of rape and murder, which is the start of his downfall, as you can imagine. However, as the book progresses, Wright carefully points out all the cultural problems in such a way that you can follow Bigger’s thinking and how easy it was for him to fall into this legal trap.

Murder is wrong, but it was accidental. Why didn’t Bigger just leave Mary in the room? Because one thing happens which triggers a whole onslaught of other related events, but every single stage of this journey is based on faulty cultural assumptions (i.e. White vs. Black), so honestly how could this event have played out any differently? It really couldn’t have, and that’s why it was a really effective writing decision to use the omniscient point of view. Having all the thoughts of each character means that you, as the reader, see the logic in some of the decisions that follow when the book’s characters don’t.

The first part, Fear, is when Wright is setting up the scene of the poverty and high levels of unemployment that the African-American community faces just trying to live their lives. There’s a lot of fear around: white people fear black people, black people fear white people, and almost every action that anyone takes is grounded by being afraid. It’s a fraught time for the country, and such racial tension is easy to be ignited with the open flames of unrest and discontent.

The second part, Flight, is right after the incident between Mary and Bigger occurs, and events happen very quickly after that, as Bigger has to leave home to hide from the police. This is a really tense novel, if you haven’t picked that up already, and it was soooo difficult to actually put down. (There are no chapter breaks and no paragraph breaks to take a breath. You are as exhausted as Bigger gets when you’re reading it.) Bigger is on the run…

The final section, Fate, is when the law catches up with Bigger and he faces his court trial for the death penalty for what might have been murder (and not just murder: murder of a white woman by a black man…). Even more shocking and great media fodder. The trial ends up drawing massive attention, and people rally outside the court room shouting and chanting what they think should happen to Bigger.

But Bigger’s lawyer, Mr. Max, gives an astonishing speech in his closing arguments – you’ll have to read it to believe it – and throughout his talk, Mr. Max clearly shines the spotlights on the cultural mores and assumptions that have led to this situation.

Taking a birds-eye view (with the omniscient POV) opens the full range of reasons why the Bigger-Mary incident occurred. Was he culpable?  Sure, but how much blame can you assign to a racist society which cuts off opportunities for betterment to a large part of society? Where does the line stop?

Anyway, a fascinating read and one that kept me up rather later a few nights as I just couldn’t leave Bigger without knowing his fate. Highly recommended as a African-American classic. Everyone should be reading this, even (and perhaps especially) the Orange Goblin (if he can read).

Part of JOMP’s celebration of Black History Month.

AfAm_History_Month

Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities – Rebecca Solnit (2016)

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The blogosphere has been rather on fire about this short book of essays by the eloquent and passionate Rebecca Solnit. Solnit is an activist for a wide variety of social justice issues, and this quick read is a balm for the soul in terms of how to deal with 45 in the White House.

It’s not a quick fix recipe book, but does have wise words for those who have been impacted by the ascendancy of 45 and his wolf pack, and how to help affect long-term change. If, like me, you’re a tad bit overwhelmed by the sudden 180 degree change in domestic and foreign policies which veer widely every time you wake up (it seems), Solnit has some wise words about looking at change in a long-term view and reminding the reader that all long-time societal impacts are usually composed of loads of small changes happening over a longish amount of time. You might not see the impact but small changes add up.

It’s rather like the analogy of the starfish:

One day on a lonely beach, one person saw that another person was throwing beach-stranded starfishes back into the sea.

“What are you doing?” that person asked.

The starfish rescuer responded, “I’m throwing starfish back into the sea so that they can continue to live.”

The original person said, perplexed, “But there are millions of starfish. How does throwing one starfish back in the sea save the day?”

The starfish thrower responded, “It makes a big difference to that one particular starfish…”

🙂