The white man who pretended to be black

Tim Stanley in The Telegraph:

Blacklikemebook-xlargeCan a white person ever really understand how a black person sees the world? Back in 1959, six years before Martin Luther King marched for civil rights in Selma, one man tried. A white Texan writer called John Howard Griffin walked into a doctor’s office in New Orleans and asked him to turn his skin colour black. Griffin took oral medication and was bombarded with ultraviolet rays; he cut off his hair to hide an absence of curls and shaved the back of his hands. Then he went on a tour of the Deep South. The result was a bestselling book called Black Like Me, which is still regarded as an American classic. Griffin wanted to test the claim that although the southern United States was segregated it was essentially peaceful and just – that the two races were separate but equal.

What he discovered tells us a lot about the subtleties of racism. In 1959, unlike today, it was legally instituted. But, like today, it also flourished at the personal level – in hostility, suspicion, fear and even self-loathing. Griffin was an extraordinary man. Born in Dallas in 1920, he went to school in France and joined the French Resistance after Hitler invaded. Griffin helped Jewish children escape to England before fleeing to America. While serving in the US army, he was blinded by shrapnel. Griffin took it all in his stride – he married, had children and converted to Catholicism. Griffin’s strong personal faith reminds us that much of the civil rights movement was in fact a Christian mission – made possible, in this instance, by what seemed like a miracle. Walking around his yard one afternoon, Griffin suddenly saw red swirls where hitherto there was only darkness. Within months his sight had returned. And it was a man determined to make the most of his second chance who hit upon the novel idea of crossing the colour line. Those reading the book today might regard Griffin’s attempt to change his colour as akin to blacking up. Certainly, the transformation was awkward. Griffin may well have had dark skin but he retained his classically Caucasian features, and one suspects that the awkwardness of his encounters with some black people was down to them wondering if he was one of them or just horribly sunburnt.

More here. (Note: At least one post throughout February will be in honor of Black History Month)