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Book Review: "Black Like Me", by John Howard Griffin

I am annoyed by those who love mankind but are cruel and discourteous to people.

Curtis Bok, Justice of the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania, speech at Radcliffe College Commencement, 1960. From “Black Like Me” (The Penguin Group, 1962, Page 161) by John Howard Griffin

I don't remember why I bought this book; I think I was reviewing some other books on Amazon and this popped up. I bought it and read it today. There are a lot of insights that can apply not just to the racial problem of the 1960s, but also to how those racial problems translate to the modern day and how societal dynamics work or don't work.

John Howard Griffith, a researcher in race relations in the 1960s, took vitiligo medication, went under a tanning bed, and applied dark makeup to himself in order to become a black man. Then, he went to Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama to see what a black man's life would be like there.

This guy. Had balls. Of steel. I do think he double checked his will before he left.

With a network of black contacts he formed through the South, he began taking on menial jobs, such as shoe shiner or janitor, in order to see how black and white society interacted. In the beginning, most white people ignored him, and black people shared their misery or numbness with him (one black man told him to stay near his house, because nobody in town would let him use their restroom). This was in New Orleans.

In Mississippi, things got testier. It was here where he first got the “hate stare”, which apparently gave him nightmares and made him wake up screaming on two separate occasions. While hitchhiking during the evening, white men would routinely talk of their sexual fantasies with black women, and ask him prudish questions about different sexual acts, with no hint of respect or decency.

Alabama was nicer; as the state of Martin Luther King, Jr. and other civil rights leaders, black people began to hope for an equal future and passively resist racism. Thing about passively resistance is that it makes the other party look like douchbags. Like if you kicked a puppy. Still, people did threaten to kill him for no reason at all, so it was kind of the same.

Nearer the end, he couldn't take it anymore and started being alternately white and black, changing his coloration throughout the day in order to start escaping his self-created hell. It did make him feel like he was wearing not one, but two masks: a black one and a white one.

Afterwards, he flew back to Texas, and appeared on multiple television shows and broadcasts. His town did not take this lightly. Even as received thousands of sympathetic and congratulatory notes, he was hanged in effigy and received death threats credible enough to make him and his entire extended family to flee to Mexico, where he wrote this book.

I took away three lessons from reading this book:

  • Having good people in powerful positions does wonders. Atlanta is a prime positive example. With civil rights leaders in the mayor's seat, the media, and religious spaces, black people were able to circumvent financial and societal roadblocks that dogged other cities.
  • In extremely delicate situations, protocol is extremely important. I noted in Lee Kwan Yew's biography that protocol officers are extremely important when high-level members from different countries meet. “Walk to the center of the room, extend your hand first, keep your arm straight, smile without showing teeth, and say these exact words” is the level of detail they specify, because it's important to prevent any cultural misunderstanding. I blew that off early on, thinking it's a sham. After reading this book, I realized that protocol is not a sham, especially if two parties have prior major grievances. Mistakes can spiral out of control, and conflict will arise for the stupidest reasons. Mistakes being, addressing the white person in the room first instead of the black people, making multiple race-based councils with no racial interaction, even sending a poorly worded congratulatory note. Cities in America have burned down in part because of stuff like this.
  • The application of equal vs. equitable treatment should be carefully considered. Equal treatment is treating the exact same, and equitable is treating fairly. These are quite different; affirmative action, for example, is predominiantly unequal, but is arguably equitable. Is it the right thing to do? I think so, because it assists in building a society with better racial harmony, which is one I would want to live in.

There are several haunting quotes in this book. Haunting. Try them on for size:

A man knows no matter how hard he works, he's never going to quite manage…taxes and prices eat up more than he can earn. He can't see how he'll ever have a wife and children. The economic structure just doesn't permit it unless he's prepared to live down in poverty and have his wife work too. That's part of it. Our people aren't educated because they either can't afford it or else they know education won't earn them the jobs it otherwise would. Any kind of family life, any decent standard of living seems impossible from the outset. (Page 39)

Does this sound familiar? If not, consider this:

White society was offended by any suggestion of injustice. They claimed that they always treated black people wonderfully well and always would so long as black people “stayed in their place.” If you asked them what that “place” was, they could not really say, but every black man knew that place was right in the middle of the stereotype. (Page 167)

Good whites–not the type that is overtly bigoted–urged us to “work, study, lift ourselves up by our bootstraps.” They really thought that was the remedy. (Page 167)

This was written in 1960, yet you could pull these quotes out of a newspaper or a television program from 2017 (especially that last phrase). It does make you wonder how much we did change. It also makes you appreciate the actions we take today of reassuring underrepresented minorities that the work is not done at all and we have a long way to go, and that we will get there.

I know this is a sensitive topic, so I will end with saying I wrote this at 11PM on a Friday and this is a first pass on a subject that I'm sure will come up again in the future. Please take this review in that context.

(Correction on 2017/11/27): The original post listed equality and equitability as “not different”; for purposes of this argument, this has been changed to “quite different”.