Still walking in another's shoes

Book is lighting rod for civil rights era

Forty years have passed since the publication of "Black Like Me," the searing account of a white Texan who dyed his skin black and encountered hatred and distrust among white Southerners. The book's Jim Crow era of lynchings and segregated lunch counters is long gone. But "Black Like Me" has endured.

The book's staying power is especially evinced by its newfound respect among African-Americans. First hailed and then scorned by some blacks, "Black Like Me" is finding favor again among blacks who are dismayed by a lack of progress in race relations.

"There is a real underground movement about the book. I get calls on it at least once a week," says Robert Bonazzi of Fort Worth, Texas, author of "Man in the Mirror: John Howard Griffin and the Story of 'Black Like Me.' " "It changed people's minds. It's still changing minds. It even makes a difference with young blacks, who don't have any knowledge of the segregation era."

The book has sold more than 10 million copies, but numbers alone don't measure its popularity or influence. "Black Like Me" has entered the canon of modern works educators treasure for their literary, historical, and humanistic value, along with "To Kill a Mockingbird," "The Jungle," "Animal Farm." From grade school to college, curricula across America use the book as a springboard for discussion about racism, diversity, and multiculturalism.

Author John Howard Griffin was a deeply religious man, desperate to build a bridge between whites and blacks. His six-week odyssey through the South as a black person was a dark journey into racism. He was flashed the "hate stare" by dozens of white strangers, stalked by a young white man, barred by a white bus driver on a long trip from leaving the bus to use a restroom and insulted and disrespected by whites in nearly every encounter.

Griffin was uniquely qualified to confront racism. He was born in 1920 into a middle-class Dallas family. Studying in France at the outbreak of World War II, he provided medical treatment to ravaged black Senegalese soldiers, used as cannon fodder against the Nazis by the French. He joined the French resistance and bravely spirited Jewish refugees out of the country.

Later, as a US soldier, he lived like a native among tribesmen in a remote Pacific island, where his skills counted for little in the harsh jungle. Blinded by an enemy shell, he spent a decade without vision, encountering the prejudices and stereotypes of the seeing world. Griffin miraculously recovered his sight in 1957.

"Being blind was a great experience," he told The Washington Post. "As a Southerner all the stereotypes I'd been brought up with, the speech patterns that blacks were supposed to have, the appearance, all those delusions had to go out the door."

Blacks warmly embraced "Black Like Me" in 1961. Journalist Louis Lomax praised the book in the Saturday Review: "There is a saying among Negroes that no white man, no matter how hard he tries, can really understand what it's like to be black in America. John Howard Griffin has come closer to this understanding than any white man that I know." Ebony magazine did a lavish photo spread in 1964 on a movie based on the book. Griffin became a welcomed fixture in the Civil Rights movement, strategizing with Martin Luther King Jr., Dick Gregory, and other black leaders.

Yet the book also stirred resentment as black consciousness rose. Black nationalist Stokely Carmichael dismissed it as "an excellent book for whites." Writer Shelby Steele said he disliked the book when he read it in the 1960s because it reduced the richness of black experience to being victims of white prejudice.

William Spriggs of the National Urban League in Washington was a teenager in the 1970s. The book first struck him as both patronizing and passe. "There was this window of opportunity in the '70s. People were willing then to engage in a cordial debate about race," he says.

"Today there's been a regression [in race relations]," says Mr. Spriggs, the director of the Urban League's Institute for Opportunity and Equality. "The book is relevant to our times. We're no longer in the Jim Crow era, but blacks are still followed. It's still hard to get a taxi. We're still denied jobs because of race."

Whites did not hide their contempt for Griffin as a black person. That has not changed as much as people might assume, says Sandra Jackson, an associate professor of education and director of the Center for Culture and History of the Black Diaspora at DePaul University in Chicago. "Some of the experience [of racism] is still in your face. Look at the black man who was dragged from a truck in Texas. That was out in the open," she says. Blacks are nevertheless cautious about giving too much credence to a book by a white on the black experience. "Griffin could return to what he used to be," says Ms. Jackson. "It's like a man trying to be a woman for a day. Most men live for 78 years. That's just one day."

More authentic accounts of the black experience are found in works by Richard Wright, James Baldwin, and other great black writers. "Griffin proved a point about the absurdity of treatment based on skin color, but it's ridiculous to suppose that African-American culture exists entirely in response to white racism," says Lawrence Jackson, an assistant professor of English at Howard University in Washington.

"Black Like Me" is required reading in schools nationwide. Prof. Peter Morgan of the University of West Georgia in Carrollton uses it in a class on Young Adult Literature for aspiring teachers. "Literature helps students - and student teachers - develop empathy, to see the world from multiple perspectives," he says. " 'Black Like Me' is especially potent in this respect. Students who are somewhat jaded by TV movies and preachy novels are stunned by the new insights they get into the real world of their parents and grandparents."

'Black Like Me" was initially praised for its journalistic snapshot image of the South. It is now praised for transcending its time and place in exploring universal themes of identity and race. "The book is useful as a metaphor about walking in someone else's shoes," says Jackson of DePaul. "It takes people out of their comfort zone and gives them insights they might not have had."

After Griffin's account was published (initially as a series in the black magazine Sepia), he was hung in effigy in Mansfield, where he lived. Death threats forced him to move his family to Mexico. Later in life, he became disillusioned with the lack of progress in race relations. His final project was official biographer of monk Thomas Merton. He never finished, dying in 1980. Left unfinished too, in his own mind, was the improvement in race relations he wanted his book to effect.

Teachers tell another story. Morgan says the book continues to arouse debate and insight. "There are always students who say, 'But it's not like that anymore,' " says Morgan. "But then another student will say, 'Well...,' and the class begins to share anecdotes that demonstrate that old ideas run close to the surface for many."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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