Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Review: Black Like Me by John Howard Griffin

Black Like Me: UpdatedBlack Like Me: Updated by John Howard Griffin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In all honesty, I must admit I have no idea how to rate this book. Given GR's star system, it's confusing to me. It really is sort of "amazing" in terms of its undertaking, compelling material and its impact. Yet, I'm not sure I can give it a full 5, despite its status as a classic. I loved this book in high school, and back then I would have rated it 5 stars without question. Now, as an adult, I hesitate. I will try to explain.

Black Like Me has a couple different aspects, each with different levels of usefulness.

As an early "non-fiction novel" it does ride up there with In Cold Blood. As a story, I found it hard to put down, and I found it quite gripping. Griffin's prose is charismatic and well constructed, and the "story" has a nice progression and flow due to the travel element, from New Orleans to the "heart of segregation," and it's hard not to hold your breath through his travels Southward. I also found his personal reflections fascinating, as his introspection developed.

As "ethnography," I do feel this book has great importance. Griffin records a lot of voices he would not have been able to capture had be not blackened his face, and his vignettes tell the reader a lot about the nature of segregation. While I feel he pulls some editorial punches (for example, I feel he shys away from recording dialects and other details that might have been valuable left intact), and I know he has shaped the material with a particular theme in mind, I also think it's a valuable read for anyone studying this period, or race relations in general. Griffin, from all accounts, seems to have led a remarkable life, and this period is one of its major highlights.

As social justice philosophy, it's of course admirable in its goals. It does demonstrate that skin colour overrode (overrides?) all, since he changed neither his name nor his credentials as he traveled. He was, as he says, the same man, but for colour, and he succeeds in describing the many, many adjustments he was forced to make because of his darker skin.

However, in this area it has dated a bit, in my opinion. Looking at it from 2012, it's hard to embrace the "black face" of it (though Griffin is clear that he never lied to people about being a black man; he just darkened himself and let people decide what they would), but it isn't just the performance of dark skin that makes me uneasy. It's actually the number of times that Griffin uses the term (or concept) of "we" to describe his experience within the black community, and how often he refers to himself as "black" that makes me uneasy. In a way it fits, because he was living under the restrictions, but I wonder at the "right" of this.

But, he spent eight weeks. Eight weeks, out of (at that point) 40-odd years. While the place of pigment can't be discounted, it's difficult to agree that he had become a black man over eight weeks of sharing these restrictions. Always, he knew he could take it off, and return to his "real life". I can't help but think that pretending simply can't reproduce the feeling of permanence. Darkening one's skin can't really compare with living in that skin, and likely feeling (in the 50s) the sense of no escape, ever, from segregation. So, to me, these assertions rather over-stepped into appropriation. I believe Griffin's heart was in the right place, but I do think this is over reaching the limits of his experiment.

As Malcolm X noted about this book, "Can you imagine how much more horrifying it would be to live like this your whole life?"

For this, I pull back a bit from five stars, because over-stressing this book has its dangers, in my opinion, and buying Griffin as an "insider" just doesn't fly. He certainly had a better understanding than people who hadn't walked a mile in those shoes, but he wasn't really an "insider," either, because he knew it was an experiment.

He works much better as a "participant observer," perhaps, although his own emotional "insiderness" was compelling in its own right when it was appropriate. (Of particular relevance were the moments of revelation he had looking at himself in a mirror, and facing his own racism and feelings of complete alienation from the black face that looked back at him.) His space on the margins of the white community in the face of his beliefs and his findings were especially interesting to me.

Griffin's description of the book's reception by the write community is dreadful (literally, filled with dread). The last section of the book feels a bit disjointed and tacked on, which is a pity, but I think it's part of the book's power. (There were a few moments where it went into martyr-mode, but overall he kept it pretty concise and journalistic, and held back from too much self-congratulation.)

Black Like Me, as some critics have said, is a great book on racism - for white people. It is in the book's portrayal of the whites along the way, and the reactions it spurred, that ring the best for me.

The edition I read had an afterword from after 1967, which made an interesting epilogue. By this point, Griffin was noticing that his position as "spokesman" was wearing thin, and it seems he wanted to (and had been asked to, perhaps) step back. He found he was being asked to consult on the "race problem" with white committees who didn't even think to invite black leaders! He was becoming, for white leaders, a safe or more palatable substitute, and that simply didn't work. As he expressed in an interview elsewhere, it had become ridiculous for him to serve as a voice for the black community, when it had many, better voices of its own. For me, this realization went a long way to addressing my concerns in the book itself.

So, final reckoning...? Certainly worth the read, as history and as a work of prose. I would recommend anyone interested in this period or these issues read this, particularly the updated edition. If you want to know more about Jim Crow laws and practices in everyday life, this book could be valuable to you. But, like with most serious issues, I caution that this shouldn't be the only book you read about it. This is not the final word, and I don't believe Griffin meant it to be. But it might make an excellent starting point, and is a good narrative illustration among the numerous academic books on the subject.

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