October here in the UK is Black History Month. Last year we featured here on our blog four recommended books for you: STRIDE TOWARD FREEDOM by Martin Luther King, Jr, BLACK LIKE ME by John Howard Griffin, SOFT VENGEANCE OF A FREEDOM FIGHTER by Albie Sachs, and THE HORN by John Clellon Holmes. Read our two blog posts for Black History Month 2012 here and here. This year we’ll give you a more in-depth look at each of these four books.
In the spotlight today is BLACK LIKE ME by John Howard Griffin. The diary of a white man who travelled through the Deep South of the 1950s disguised as a black man, it is required reading in schools and colleges in the United States, but has only recently been made available in the UK for the first time in decades, as part of Souvenir Press’ Independent Voices series.
The book starts in October 1959, when Griffin begins his transformation. He artificially darkens his skin and starts out in New Orleans, passing as a black man. He documents his struggle to find work, and the struggle of day-to-day living in the segregated Deep South. From finding a place to stay, to something as basic as finding a bathroom to use or somewhere to buy a glass of water, life as a black man is a series of struggles – some he was aware of before, as a white man, and some which are entirely new. And that’s in the city, where black men admit that they have made “progress” and are treated much better than their counterparts in rural areas.
For two months Griffin passes as a black man, travelling the southern states of America, documenting the varying reactions he receives from strangers. From “fellow” Negros – because at the time he was writing the term ‘African-American’ had not emerged – he found a sense of brotherhood, a community quick to help someone in need, but it was by no means a united community.
From white Americans he could experience everything from cautious politeness to outright hatred. He became accustomed to “hate stares” from whites, and in the worst states is even given a list of rules by a well-meaning Negro to help him “get by”. He’s told not to even look at a white woman, to look at the ground when walking, and to avoid alleyways when walking – he should walk in the middle of the street so as to avoid being beaten and mugged.
BLACK LIKE ME propelled Griffin to national fame for a while, but it provoked anger in equal measure, with Griffin enduring threats and physical violence in the aftermath of publication. Griffin died in 1980 at the age of 60 from complications relating to diabetes. Rumours circulated that his death was due to skin cancer caused by the drugs he used to darken his skin for BLACK LIKE ME, but in fact Griffin didn’t have skin cancer, and the only negative symptoms he experienced from the drugs were nausea and fatigue, and then the effects were only temporary.
Described by the Today programme on BBC Radio 4 as “one of the most extraordinary books ever written about relations between the races”, BLACK LIKE ME by John Howard Griffin is an eye-opening and thought-provoking read, perfect for Black History Month.