Venturing Out with Black Like Me

"Black like me" is the last line of the poem, "Dream Variations," by Langston Hughes; the narrator dreams to dance "till the white day is done" and then "rest at cool evening" with "Night coming tenderly / Black like me." It became the title of the book Black Like Me by John Howard Griffin, published in 1961, before I was born. A reader recommended that she thought it fit with the road trip books I was reading, so I put the e-book on hold at the library.

I admit to being a little wary of it. All I knew was this was a true story of a white man, with the help of a doctor, who ingests medication and undergoes a treatment of UV light so that his skin will darken and he will "become" a Black man, and then he travels the South. How would this work? Griffin had been told that perhaps if a white man could step inside the shoes of a Black man for a bit, he might understand the systemic racism, the treatment he encountered that made it impossible to move up in the world as white men did. Would he? Did he?

The minute I began reading I couldn't put it down. It is a personal book, written in diary form, and he shares his emotions freely. Griffin decided at the beginning of his exploration that he would keep his name and answer as truthfully as possible about his life: he was married, he had kids, he was a writer. He confided in only a few people he trusted so that he could get started, and a Black friend told him he needed to shave his hands as well as the head he had already shaved since his hair wasn't curly enough. He set out to travel the South, starting in New Orleans, where it felt tolerable, even friendly, and through to Mississippi and Alabama, where the violence and hatred from whites were overt. Blacks tended to be friendly and welcoming to him, providing shelter and food when they themselves had little. 

Before he left, he wondered if there truly was racism in America, or if a man could be judged and treated according to merit. As a Black man, Griffin tried to get a job wherever he went, but was rejected because of his dark color. He notes that the best jobs at the time for Black workers were postal workers, teachers, and preachers. All others could only get menial jobs, if they could get work at all. As Griffin stayed on the road seven weeks, it became quite clear that the color of one's skin made a difference. He tried the same cities as both a white man and a Black man and was appalled at the gap. He then returned to his family in Texas, shaken and changed.

The updated edition of the book continues with the aftermath of interviews and the publication of the story. How people in his own town stopped talking to him and his family. The hate calls. How he had to finally move to Mexico, where he had a brother, to wait it out for a year. Eventually, he was called to help mediate between Black and white communities of the same cities, but it infuriated him that a Black man could say something and be called names, while he could say the exact same thing and be called in as an "expert." There was and is plenty more work to do to change laws, training, and ways of thinking.

His background is fascinating as well. He lived in France, he was in the military, he helped Jewish children escape the Nazis, he went blind for ten years, he converted to Roman Catholicism, to name a few other life-changing events. An online summary of Griffin's biography and an article by Bruce Watson that looks back from 2011 on the book was published in Smithsonian Magazine.

On a related note, in Trevor Noah's comedy special Afraid of the Dark, Noah talks, among other things, about visiting Scotland, where he appears to be the only Black man, and he says, "Travel is the antidote to ignorance." I had to pause and think about this. For Griffin, who had traveled previously, this was stunningly true. By meeting people in other countries, in other cultures as well as his own, he shaped and reshaped his idea of shared humanity, with the idea that one should put away the concept of "Other," particularly in regards to people he met in everyday life.

I was reminded of a vinyl record I had when I was a child: (Little Songs on Big Subjects) It Could Be a Wonderful World. At the time, I thought it was a little too sweet, but decades later, when I look at the song titles, all the lyrics come to me, so obviously it made an impression. Lyrics by Hy Zaret, music by Lou Singer, sung by Leon Bibb and Ronnie Gilbert (who originally founded The Weavers with Pete Seeger), and cover art by one of my favorites, Leo Lionni. The album was released around 1959, the time of both Griffin's and Steinbeck's journeys, and came out on CD in 2012 or so, and it can be streamed. I wonder how children today would find it.

Some of the lyrics that I remember, that stand out to me now (links to YouTube audio):

I Want to Live in a Friendly World: "If I run short of a cup of milk, and my next door neighbor's in / I want to know that she won't say no to the color of my skin / or the church I worship in / or the town from which I came / or my great-grandfather's name"

Brown-Skinned Cow: "You can get good milk / from a brown-skinned cow / the color of the skin / doesn't matter nohow"

Close Your Eyes and Point Your Finger: "Close your eyes and point your finger / on the map just let it linger / any place you point your finger to / there's someone with the same type blood as you" 

There is even a song called "Traveling Broadens One," which I had forgotten, perhaps because the music didn't appeal to me. I include the links, but I also realize that the arrangements are quite dated. The ideas, however, remain worthy and relevant 

It is interesting to me that many of the songs have stuck with me, and I'm sure they are partly responsible for how I think today. Culture, as we know, is important: art, music, dance, writing. Through our arts we both reflect and attempt to shape hearts and minds, and sometimes to change them, as one friend insisted recently we must do. 

We can't travel right now, but we can explore things we have never seen before online and through books, through images, art, and words. An alternative "antidote for ignorance." And that is a start: to search for something positive outside of what we normally read or view. And as we explore to keep in mind that "any place…there's someone with the same type blood as you."

Thanks for reading. Take care.