White like me – or, seeing the world through "Black Like Me"
As America celebrates the 50th anniversary of John Griffin's "Black Like Me," a writer recalls more recent scenarios that Griffin would have found only too familiar.
In 1959, a white man from Texas darkened his skin with chemicals, became a "Negro," and set out to chronicle his experience as a black man busing and hitchhiking his way across Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia.
Two years later John Griffin published his expose "Black Like Me" and the world received a shocking eyewitness account of raw racial hatred. By this time Griffin had become white again. He was hung in effigy in his hometown.
Much has changed since Griffin experienced the humiliations of segregated buses, bathrooms, and the "hate stare." I read Griffin's book when I was nine years old growing up three miles from Thomas Jefferson's home Monticello in Virginia. Lyndon Baines Johnson had just passed the Civil Rights Act in 1964. Griffin's account so profoundly shook me that it remained on my bookshelf for the next four decades. Dry as a dessicated Dead Sea scroll, the original paperback still sits on my bookcase, its unglued binding swathed in masking tape from some rescue attempt I've long forgotten, cracking whenever I turn a page.
As a curious white girl who explored Monticello's dank slave quarters, I found Griffin's lens on race relations riveting. In the town of Charlottesville, Va., we still had "Colored Only" signs on the side of the downtown movie theatre (pointing to the back of the building). Neighbors heatedly debated when we would integrate our pools, country clubs, and private schools. I can still today feel the fury of a mother whose middle-school-aged white daughter, a friend of mine, had a crush on a black student.
Then, as payback for White Power, Black Power struck with fury. Close black friends no longer wanted to talk or walk with me. I realized they were reacting to the cultural remnants of the Old South all around them, but I felt the sting of these losses. They glared at me as we passed down high school hallways. A dozen black students I did not know launched stones at me as I walked home one day.
For these angry high school students, I had become the symbol of all they found remiss in the land of liberty.
As an adult working overseas, these memories receded. It was only when I returned in the 1990s to Annapolis, Md., capital of a former border state with divided Confederate and Union loyalties, that I realized how far we had come – and how far we still had to go – in untangling the complex web of race relations spun in America.
At the time, my son was eleven months old – on the cusp of trying out his first words. On an outing with him in his stroller through downtown, I saw a large crowd. I was told a KKK rally was being held at the Capitol building. Suddenly the two of us were swept into an anti-KKK demonstration moving swiftly up Main Street. Briefly I thought this must be a flashback – perhaps I had inadvertently time-travelled to an earlier ugly era.
But no, the Klansmen had assembled in their iconic white gowns and steepled hoods before the State House, staging their event in full view of the state's seat of legislative power. Policemen advised me to keep at a distance. Upon seeing the KKK's gowns, my son, perched high in his stroller, thought it an appropriate moment to attempt speech. His words were not the usual "cat," "dog," or "Mommy," but a marchers' chant.
"K-K-K, Go a-way!" he shouted.
It was a six-syllable rhyme as easy as a Dr. Seuss verse. He recited it for many days to come.
Since that day my son has mastered a wider lexicon, blacks continue to fill the ranks of the middle class, and America has elected its first black president.
And yet what really brought home to me the drama of America's race relations came recently in the unlikely setting of a medical office. I had fallen. My ankle had morphed into a black and blue mass the size of a small football. My doctor started her examination when her cell phone chimed. She quickly took the call and hung up after a brief conversation.
"I apologize," she said, agitated. "That was my retarded uncle. He likes to chat. I am his caretaker." She studied my ankle. Her uncle was in a convalescent home nearby.
"He really likes the care he is receiving," she added. Then she paused. "But I told him he must stopping throwing the 'n' word at the staff, or he is going to be asked to leave."
"The 'n' word?" I asked, trying not to sound too alarmed. "The 'n' word? To the staff?"
O"h yes," she said, "I gave it to him straight. He told me, 'I'll shut it up right away.' And he better."
"Oh," I said, blinking in disbelief.
"I grew up in a family that used the 'n' word all the time," said my white doctor, pulling back the long shiny mane of brown hair that encased her face. Her grandfather was a KKK member and a police officer in Washington D.C. Then he became a preacher and moved to Mississippi, she explained.
"When I married my husband 20 years ago – he's black and a surgeon – well, I tell you, I got it from both sides."
I had noticed the doctor's husband's medical flyers in the waiting room. He smiled confidently from a glossy professional photo, decked in medical scrubs.
"Both sides?" I asked.
"Yes, my mother was shocked. My mother-in-law was horrified. My mother-in-law said, 'If my son were a trash collector, you wouldn't have anything to do with him, would you?' I told her, 'You're probably right that I wouldn't marry a trash collector, but that's because I don't think we'd necessarily have much in common. But I love your son.' "
My ankle was badly sprained. But the doctor was not done excavating her past, mixing medicine with memory, triggered by a phone call. Her mother and father did not want to have anything to do her and her husband, she added. When Grandpa – "the Klansman“ – died, her mother told her not to come to the funeral.
" ''The family won't accept it,' my mother said. I went anyway."
It was a storyline right out of "Black Like Me."
"Until my dad's funeral, my brother severed all ties with me," she said. "Then he finally came up and thanked my husband, hugged him. Do you know why? Because it was my husband who had taken in our parents when they got older. It was my husband who built an extension on the house to care for his white parents-in-laws until they passed away."
My doctor's skin was as pasty white as mine. But there was a hint of something non-Caucasian. "I'm part Native American, part Scotch-Irish, part Italian, who knows what else – a true American, a mutt," she said.
Race had touched my doctor's life in other ways. She received a medical degree from the same historic black university from which her husband matriculated.
She was an anomaly on campus. "In class a teacher requested that I stop raising my hand. Apparently I wasn't supposed to ask any questions. A student came up to me once and asked, 'I know you're probably sick of being asked this, but are you white or are you black?' "
When I got home that day something moved me to open up "Black Like Me." As another page crumbled, I read: "The real story is the universal one of men who destroy the souls and bodies of other men (and in the process destroy themselves). It is the story of the persecuted, the defrauded, the feared and detested. I could have been a Jew in Germany, a Mexican in a number of states, or a member of any 'inferior' group. Only the details would have differed. The story would be the same."
Journalist Priscilla Hart lives in Annapolis, Md.
[Editor's note: an earlier version of this story used the wrong middle name for Lyndon Baines Johnson.]