I recently read the book ‘Black Like Me’ by John Howard Griffin. It was first published in 1961 and covers the racism that was prevalent in the USA in the late 1950s. The journalist, Griffin (a white man), coloured his skin black and travelled around the South, documenting his experiences. If you haven’t read it I would truly recommend it. It is compulsory reading for High School Students in the USA and I can definitely see why!
All my life I’ve inherently known that racism is wrong, and I have never questioned it. I have grown up in a society where I see very little racism. In fact, I’ve grown up in London which is the most culturally diverse area in the UK. Therefore, it was beyond me how and why people were racist and undertook racist acts. I couldn’t understand it. Why would you discriminate against someone solely because their skin colour was different? Why does this mean some people think that they are inferior and can be treated like second class citizens?
I did not purposely start reading ‘Black Like Me’ to specifically answer my questions, in fact it was given to me as a present. Yet, along with feeding my passion for historical information, ‘Black Like Me’ gave me an insight and did end up answering a few of my questions, emphatically at that.
The way in which Griffin undertook his tour of areas of Southern USA was this. He kept his name, his accolades and his personality, he simply changed his skin colour. Despite being the same person on the inside he faced discrimination. Thus, at a time when racism was intrinsically incorporated into society in the States, Griffin proved it wrong and demonstrated that it was futile and unjustifiable. He was the same person, so surely he should be treated in the same way no matter what his skin colour?
However, Griffin goes further than pointing out this truth; he begins to unravel why it is that people thought that blacks in the South were an inferior race. Griffin explains that because of the racist society the blacks were forced to have less access to amenities and lesser living standards, essentially living in poverty. This resulted in a self-perpetuating cycle of poverty, reinforcing the idea that blacks were actually an inferior race and incapable of living the same way that whites do. For example, blacks in the Deep South had access to poorer education; this led to an ineptitude to gain employment meaning that blacks were effectively forced into low paid and low skilled jobs. This detained them in poverty with no way out. The inability to improve one’s situation inevitably led to the social issues, such as drunkenness, that the whites associated with ‘black areas of town.’ However, Griffin points out that if whites were condemned to the same situation, they too would be in the same poverty-stricken position the blacks were in. Thus he concludes that rather than the blacks being an inferior race, they were actually simply victims to economic and social grievances. Grievances that were in desperate need of being redressed!
As you can see, my questions as to why blacks were thought to be inferior and treated as second class citizens was answered. This was a sort of enlightenment to me and instigated epiphany moment as I had never before thought of some of the issues in this context before.
‘Black Like Me’ serves as a historical documentation of life in the Deep South as well as a philosophical book about race. At the same time, however, it is incredibly easy to read!