Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Review: Black Like Me – John Howard Griffin


Black Like Me – John Howard Griffin


In the Deep South of the 1950s, journalist John Howard Griffin decided to cross the color line. Using medication that darkened his skin to deep brown, he exchanged his privileged life as a Southern white man for the disenfranchised world of an unemployed black man. His audacious, still chillingly relevant eyewitness history is a work about race and humanity that in this new millennium still has something important to say to every American.


Review: This book is the diary of John Howard Griffin, a journalist who decided to conduct a social experiment about segregation in the American South. In the winter of 1959, John started taking vitiligo pills to turn his skin dark brown. He left upper-class white society to travel through the South as an unemployed black man. What he discovered helped change the way that many Americans viewed race.

Griffin’s diary shows the day-to-day challenges of being a black person in the South. It definitely deepened my understanding of segregation because it includes a lot of information that I don’t remember learning in school. In the diary, John talks about traveling through areas that didn’t have a large black population. He wasn’t allowed to use white facilities, and there weren’t facilities for black people in these areas, so he had to walk miles to find water to drink, bathrooms, or a bench that he was allowed to sit on. White people were also deliberately cruel to him. They wanted to make black people miserable so that the black people would leave the towns and move somewhere else. I knew that the South in the 1950s wasn’t a wonderful place, but it’s shocking how horrible people can be to each other.

Also, it made me sad that a white man had to live through segregation and racism before other white people would take it seriously. During the time that John Howard Griffin was conducting his experiment, there were black activists trying to draw attention to the problems in the South. Many white people refused to listen to the activists. This book was groundbreaking when it was published because it was one of the first times that a white person had written extensively about the experiences of black people. John Howard Griffin was seen as a “credible source” by many white people who wouldn’t listen to the black activists.

The diary discusses Griffin’s transition back to his regular life. This is one of the most interesting parts of the book because it shows the hatred and mistrust that the races had for each other. After Griffin’s skin turned white again, it was no longer safe for him to be in the black neighborhoods he’d lived in a few days before. When the experiment was made public, he was called a “race traitor” and had to move his family to Mexico to avoid angry white supremacists.

I think everyone in the world should read this book, but I did have two issues with it.

First, since this is a diary, it sometimes references parts of the author’s life that are not explained. I had to do research on the author to know what he was talking about. This wasn’t too bad because Griffin was an interesting person. He struggled with diabetes for most of his life, traveled the world, lived in France for years, worked as a medic in the military, and helped smuggle Jews out of Austria during WWII.  An accident left him blind for a while, and when he got his sight back, he became a photographer. Some of these things are referenced in the book, but they’re not explained in detail.

A slightly bigger issue is how Griffin writes about himself in the book. He says he’s not a spokesperson for any race, but that’s exactly how some of his statements come across. This especially bothers me when he writes about himself like he was part of the black race. He wasn’t black. He was a white guy with dark skin. There’s a difference. (In my mind, at least.) He experienced many of the horrors of segregation, but he didn’t spend a lifetime as a black man in the segregated South, so it bothers me when he writes about himself like he was a black man.

Those are minor issues. This book was eye-opening for me, and more people need to read it. Even though it was first published in the 1960s, it’s still relevant. 





14 comments:

  1. I've heard about this book several times, starting in high school, but I've never read it. But after reading your review, I'm going to add it to my TBR!

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  2. This is definitely on my radar to read. Nice review, this just feels like one of those books I must read.

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    1. I think everybody should read it. I learned a lot from it.

      Aj @ Read All The Things!

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  3. This book was hotly discussed, both in class and out, in my high school days in the early '70s. It really was ground-breaking.

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    1. That’s why I read it. I was looking for books that had an impact on the real world, and this one kept coming up in my search. It sounded too interesting to pass up.

      Aj @ Read All The Things!

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  4. I hadn't heard of this one until now (your blog causes me to discover so many books!) but I am adding it to my TBR right now. It sounds like it is amazing and like there is so much to this one... that I would never have been able to think of myself. This is quite the experiment to conduct. I want to know more about it.

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    1. Yeah, the author was an interesting and passionate person. He sure did a lot in his life.

      Aj @ Read All The Things!

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  5. I remember reading this in my first year at college. It was such an eye opener of the history of the South that may of us knew about but we did not fully understand. Great review.

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    1. It was really eye-opening for me. I was born after segregation ended, so I only learned about it in school. This book made it feel a lot more real.

      Aj @ Read All The Things!

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  6. Oh wow -- I agree with your two points, particularly about how he writes -- but it sounds like it's still a powerful story?

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    1. The writing bothered me occasionally because taking a pill doesn’t make a person black, but it is a powerful story.

      Aj @ Read All The Things!

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  7. I was looking at the book the other day. My daughter's class has a group of books to pick from for their next project. This was on the list along with Uncle Tom's Cabin, The Color Purple, and Native Son. I had never heard of this book before but thought it looked interesting. I totally agree with the issues that you point out in your review but I wouldn't mind reading this one. My daughter ended up being assigned Native Son which also looks interesting. Great review!

    Carole @ Carole's Random Life

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    1. It’s a short book, and I learned so much, so it’s definitely worth reading.

      Aj @ Read All The Things!

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