Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Black Like Me - still powerful

My first book of the summer was Black Like Me by John Howard Griffin.

Although the events in the book are from 1959-60 (with the epilogue extending to the later 60s), the story remains powerful, and, sadly, still true to some degree.

For those not familiar with the book, in 1959 Griffin, a novelist, journalist and Catholic convert, decided to investigate the truth about race relations in the South by ingesting chemicals and using dyes to transform himself into a "Black" man. As a Black, he then traveled through Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, hitching, looking for work, and interacting with Blacks and whites.

It's all very personal, and troubling. The book revealed the fear - and anger - he felt as he encountered racism in its many forms. His life really was in danger.

The words and actions of outright bigots were no surprise, but what he discovered about supposed white supporters of civil rights was revealing. Their words and actions were also distorted by prejudice and ignorance. One of my "favorite" vignettes in the epilogue took place in my own city (Rochester, NY). After the story came out (originally in a magazine) he was invited to come to many cities to help address issues of prejudice. When he came to Rochester to meet with leaders of the community he pointed out that the assembled group was all white. It had never occurred to these leaders that in addressing race relations they should invite leaders of the Black community and seek Black views on the issues. And in other cities when Griffin and Black leaders met with city and community leaders, the whites tended to ask him what was going on in the Black community - ignoring the local Black leaders sitting right there.

The overt racism depicted in the book probably still exists, but certainly to a far less degree. We have a Black president. The mayor of my city is Black. My representative in the state Assembly is Black. There are many other Black social and political leaders across the country.

But ...

The Black community is still underrepresented in business, political and other leadership position.

Moreover, some of the issues raised in the book still exist, and in some cases have gotten worse. The broken families. Educational inequality. Employment inequality. Crime. Drug use. Subtler forms of prejudice - going both ways. And so on.

So while parts of the book are no longer completely true, much of it remains relevant.

It made me look at some of my own words and attitudes.

As for him going undercover, he took flak. Some people accused him of making things worse, of deceiving people. He also faced ostracism by his neighbors and death threats. His image was burned in effigy in his town. He finally fled to Mexico with his family for a while for safety reasons.

The book also reminded me of my one of my own experiences as a journalist.

I went undercover as a street beggar. I was afraid I might be attacked. I was bugged by the way some people reacted to me. I worried about how I might react if things got hairy. I took some flak for deceiving people when the paper printed my story. None of what I experienced was even close to what he experienced, but it helped me to understand a little why he did what he did and what happened to him.

I also thought of other undercover activities - like the Live Action efforts to expose Planned Parenthood. I think they are needed, but not everyone agrees.

My assessment: Good book, well written, and well worth the read.

Pax et bonum

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