In To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus tells Scout that one person can never fully understand another person without stepping into his shoes. I don't think anyone has done that to the extent that John Howard Griffin did when writing Black Like Me. The "knee-knocking courage," as Dick Gregory puts it, of what he did--changing the pigment of his skin through taking pills (sounds like something out of a dermatological horror show), exposing himself to ultra-violet rays, staining his skin, and then walking around in the Deep South to see how it felt--is astounding. Because the book seemed as confessional as it seemed indignant, because he spoke as a black man, but also as a torn white man behind that black man, the narrative drew me in.
Griffin's experience pointed out things I had never considered in practical terms before. For instance, I had always thought that for every drinking fountain or bathroom for white people, there was one for black people nearby, that the problem was merely the insult. Griffin describes one situation in which he is not allowed to use a dilapidated outhouse for whites and has to walk fourteen blocks to the nearest bathroom.
One of the most compelling revelations to Griffin was the anonymity he felt as a black man. He determined from the start never to lie about who he was, but very few people asked. Most white people simply saw him as an old black man whose past they had no interest in. This anonymity of merely being part of the black mass, coupled with the stereotype that black men have an uninhibited sexual virility, revealed itself in an even uglier way. As he hitch-hiked through Mississippi and Alabama, Griffin had to endure conversations with white men who felt that they could tell him anything about their sexual desires and ask him equally indecent questions.
The reader feels the strain of the decent black man who has to smile submissively to the hateful and degraded white man who never the less feels superior. Griffin describes the feeling "a hate stare" from a white man in a bus station gave him: "Nothing can describe the withering horror of this. You feel lost, sick at heart before such unmasked hatred, not so much because it threatens you as because it shows humans in such an inhuman light. You see a kind of insanity, something so obscene the very obscenity of it (rather than its threat) terrifies you. It was so new I could not take my eyes from the man's face. I felt like saying: 'What in God's name are you doing to yourself?'"
I've imagined the mixed reception this book would receive in my classroom. For the most part the white kids think racism is now a non-issue and become resentful when the black kids still bring it up. There is a prevailing attitude that once laws were changed back in the sixties and seventies, the effects of hundreds of years of oppression were easily wiped out. They love reading To Kill a Mockingbird, and I can't stress how much good that book has done in the Deep South, but it is to a certain extent inocuous because it depicts a white man helping a black man. Toward the end of Black Like Me Griffin points out that the civil rights movement had to move beyond this kind of paternalism. He describes how the paradigm of "fragmented individualism," in which a black man tried to fit into white society, gave way to the paradigm of a nation within a nation, in which black men built a society of social and economic strength of their own alongside white society in hopes that in time the two would merge gradually on an equal footing.
Late in the book, Griffin faults a white crowd for clapping for him while remaining aloof when a black man said essentially the same things. He says that "white men could not tolerate hearing them from a black man's mouth." Ironies like this were understandably difficult to deal with, and for the most part, Griffin presents a fair picture. Occasionally, a critic could see through some of his erasures. For instance, he condemns the white people's stereotype of the sexed up black man as totally unfounded, but later mentions that when he was white again, he had to guard against using the "semiobscene language that negroes use among themselves." He also spoke out against white people's notion that when black people bought homes in Atlanta, property values were bound to go down by saying, "In every instance, they have improved the homes they have bought from the whites and built even better ones." That seems overstated.
For all the talk about us having moved beyond racism in the Deep South, I believe teaching this book in my class would create heated conversations, maybe necessary ones. A few weeks ago I suggested to another teacher at my school that we teach The Red Badge of Courage, and she said, "It's hardly worth it because the kids get bogged down in arguments over the northern point of view." It didn't surprise me. A student walked into my classroom a few months ago and announced that he had carried a sign in a parade the night before that read, "My president is black, and so is my future." I asked him exactly what kind of a racist he considered himself, and he seemed surprised and indignant that I would accuse him of such a thing. I don't believe he is the norm, but the fact that he felt good about carrying that sign and telling all his friends about it shows me that we have a long way to go.