Sunday, February 15, 2015

Book #7: Black Like Me

In 1959, the same year my parents got married, writer John Howard Griffin changed the pigment of his skin, shaved his head and spent nearly two months traveling through the southern United States as a black man.

I knew this memoir was a classic, but I still went into it with some trepidation. Would it be superficial? Would it be exploitative? What were Griffin's intentions?

What I found was a deeply insightful book that brought out the multi-faceted complexities of racial identity, injustice, cultural barriers, humanity and inhumanity.

While we are far beyond that Jim Crow era, Griffin's observations are still meaningful today. We are clearly not done untangling the threads that have been a knotted mess through many, many generations.

Yesterday, my friend Loki, who is dedicated to untangling those threads, wondered about a couple of white kids he saw walking down the sidewalk carrying .22 rifles with total impunity. Where are the police? "Oh yeah," he wrote, "they didn't fit the profile." A couple of people pushed back on him, not engaging him on the specific point he was trying to make, but criticizing his negativity. They wanted him to look on the positive side (the kids were just out having fun!), and to be his usual inspirational self.

Shortly after I read that exchange, I read a passage in Griffin's book about a friend of his who ran a local paper. "For the first year," he wrote, his friend "managed to please everyone and offend no one. The paper had prospered . . . [He] had fence-straddled all major issues, if he mentioned them at all." Eventually he "entered into a battle with his conscience, his sense of decency. It became clear to him that though he wrote in his paper what his readers wanted to see, this was not always the truth. . . . As the situation in the South degenerated after the 1954 Supreme Court decision on segregation [Brown v. Board of Education], he was faced with a choice--either he must continue more and more to alter truth to make it conform to people's comfort, or he must write the truth in the dim hope that people would alter their comfort to conform to it."

As uncomfortable as it makes us, we need to face the truth that Loki was trying to get at: in our society, white people are far more likely to be able to walk down the street carrying .22 rifles with impunity than are people of color.

I can already hear the arguments defending that reality. They are the same arguments Griffin dispelled in Black Like Me more than 50 years ago.

We still have work to do.

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