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Available Light: Exile in Mexico

Available Light: Exile in Mexico

by John Howard Griffin

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Culled from previously unpublished material, this collection of writing and photography by John Howard Griffin was taken from the period during which he was writing and revising what would be his most famous book, the bestselling Black Like Me. Living in exile in Mexico at the time, along with his young family and aging parents,


Culled from previously unpublished material, this collection of writing and photography by John Howard Griffin was taken from the period during which he was writing and revising what would be his most famous book, the bestselling Black Like Me. Living in exile in Mexico at the time, along with his young family and aging parents, Griffin had been forced from his home town of Mansfield, Texas, by death threats from local white racists. Knowing that he would become a controversial public figure once he returned to the states, he kept an intimate journal of his ethical queries on racism and injustice—and to escape from his worries he also immersed himself in the culture of the Tarascan Indians of Michoacan. Accordingly, Robert Bonazzi's introduction contains substantial unpublished portions of the journals, and the main body of the book is made up of three essays by Griffin—one on photography and two about trips he made to photograph rural Mexico.

Editorial Reviews

School Library Journal

Adult/High School- Griffin found fame-and infamy-with his mid-20th-century experiment in changing his skin pigmentation and reporting on the responses a person of color garnered in the American South. With the publication of magazine articles that would become his classic Black Like Me , Griffin and his family became targets of hate mongers, and he, his wife and children, and his parents moved to Mexico to find sanctuary. While living in Morelia, Griffin worked not only on the book-length account of his experiences with racism, but also continued to practice photography, an art he came to some years earlier, as he was going blind. (He regained his sight a few years before his skin pigmentation experiment.) The current book includes images of friends, family, and Mexican neighbors as well as essays and journal entries from this both tumultuous and reflective period in his highly inquisitive life. A wide array of readers will find nuggets to treasure as Griffin was given access to Mexican folk celebrations, recorded rural life, reflected on the dangers threatening his family in Texas, and celebrated the recovery of his eyesight.-Francisca Goldsmith, Halifax Public Libraries, Nova Scotia

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Wings Press
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8.30(w) x 8.30(h) x 0.40(d)

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Available Light

Exile in Mexico

By John Howard Griffin, Robert Bonazzi

Wings Press

Copyright © 2010 Estate of John Howard Griffin and Elizabeth Griffin-Bonazzi
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-60940-113-9


From Texas to Mexico

After returning from a six week journey through the Deep South disguised as a "Negro" in 1959, an experience which would become the classic, Black Like Me in 1961, John Howard Griffin prepared to move his young family and elderly parents to Morelia, Mexico to avoid the racist threats they were receiving from residents in their hometown of Mansfield, Texas.

"We prepare to leave for Mexico," Griffin wrote in his Journal, on August 4, 1960, "after 13 years here in this barn studio, and I try to sort my books — books gathered over the past 20 years of my life. Strange to go back over them, to dig them out and decide what to give, what to sell, what to keep."

Griffin examined, with nostalgic selectivity, certain books that had been packed away since 1949, when he had returned from France, then totally blind. He regained his sight in January of 1957. This entry, written on the threshold of the long-delayed departure for Mexico to reunite with his family, who had flown ahead a few weeks before, floats to other worlds and times.

The sun scorches the countryside and overpowers the best efforts of an old, old fan that once cooled my Grandfather's store in South Dallas.

Things forgotten, things not seen in years or, again, many that I got while I was blind and never saw until I went through storage boxes today. They range from magnificent volumes, like the Paléographie Musicale from Solesmes, to our little two franc school volumes of Molière and Hugo. All represent periods of momentary enthusiasm that flared and then cooled to affection that remains to this day. Each was once held between my hands with that excitement nothing else can quite parallel.

I find an old and worn copy of another French book, and it brings back the incidents long dead in my memory — the cluttered second-hand bookshop near the Cathedral of Tours. The purchase for little or nothing, the excitement then of hurrying to my room, up darkened steps, and finally sitting in a chair near the dormer windows and opening the world. ... The experience of taking out and examining these beautiful things becomes almost unbearable — the evocations are fresh, stripped to their essences, and the essences were good, indeed terribly good for all of it was discovery, marvel, delight.

Only his grandfather's fan moved the air on that sun-scorched day which reached 105 degrees. Griffin did not mention it here, but it was his maternal grandfather, Samuel Clements Young, who had introduced him to books. Every night, the old man had read from a set of The Harvard Classics, passing them on volume by volume to his grandson, until finally bequeathing the entire set to the future author.

The "magnificent volumes" of the Paléographie Musical, bound scores of Gregorian Chant, had been brought over from the Abbey of St. Pierre de Solesmes, where Griffin had studied music with the Benedictine monks. These are leather-bound collections with texts in Latin, title pages and prefaces in French, and printed on heavy, semi-gloss stock with gold-leafed edges. According to the dates written on the inside of the cheap French-language paperbacks of Molière and Hugo, those had been purchased in 1936, at the beginning of his education at the Lycée Descartes in Tours.

While it had been the Gestapo that drove Griffin (then a member of the French underground resistance) out of Tours in 1939, he was being forced from Mansfield by local racists. The family would leave before Griffin, who stayed on to finish chores. For him, the departure was bittersweet and no more so than on this day, as he reminisced about other places he had been forced to abandon. And that was not all.

That night he wrote to his mentor, French philosopher Jacques Maritain, from whom he had received a distressing letter that day about his wife Raïssa's illness. "Late at night — the fan fights the tremendously heavy heat and puts a hum into the Bach. I read and try to answer Maritain's letter, so full of pain."

Above all, know that you are not alone, that everywhere in the world you are loved, not only because you are Jacques and Raïssa Maritain, the philosopher and poet, but because you are you. It's strange, simple, a peasant blushes in his clumsiness while trying to write a 'love letter' to the great poet-philosopher and the great philosopher-poet. But it's that way ... and since long ago. How to say thank-you to two people who have (after St. Thomas) been the greatest formative influence since your adolescence? How many others are spiritually your children in this sense? Many more than you imagine. How many others, ordinary types like myself, have taken fire thanks to you, and have worked in the "Thomist" liberation you have procured for them? I know a number — and authentic ones — who have taken this lamp, lighted by you, and have gone into the shadows to illuminate, by their art or their science, the obscure corners of the world.

He wrote Father J. Stanley Murphy to let him know of Maritain's "very distressing" letter. Father Stan, as everyone called him, was also a mentor and sometime confessor of Griffin's. The Basilian priest at Assumption College in Windsor, Ontario, had known the Maritains since 1942, when Jacques received the Christian Culture Award, a series Murphy had initiated in 1941.

Jacques speaks of Raíssa's falling ill in Paris; better now but with a long and dolorous convalescence ahead of her. He has spoken repeatedly of the hell of his life since Vera's death [Raíssa's sister], without specifying. ... Lord, when you think of what this man has given the world; what some poor beggar like myself owes him in formation, and then to be impotent to do anything to make things easier for them.

Griffin also told Father Stan that he had worked "harder than ever in my life" on the two versions of his journey as a disguised Black man traveling through the Deep South, "and with more love and a greater feeling of desolation than ever." This was the last letter he wrote to any of his friends until reaching Mexico.

On August 9, he made his last Journal entry from the studio. The first half is a jubilant description of a sudden rain storm "after weeks of drought, all the more wondrous because nothing led us to expect it."

However, after the mail arrived that day, nerves once again were frayed. "Dad brought the mail, with that long-suffering expression of patience on his face, of pain and anguish; another no-return address letter, another threat, another promise. I tore it open and read it. The writer tells me 'they' have definitely set the date for August 15. 'So fuck your wife good, you half-nigger bastard. After August 15 you won't have balls or peter. Your time is up. You are marked.'"

He stuffed the letter in a pocket and showed it to no one. However, his father was able to read the postcard that had arrived with the mail. Scrawled in pencil was the simple message: "August 15 is the date." Griffin's mother walked into the room and responded to "the mournful, the terrible glance" of her husband's face. Even without having read it, she blurted out: "Well, let's go now. Let's pack up and drive away."

Six days later, on August 13, Lena and Jack Griffin left Mansfield and drove to Taos, New Mexico, to spend a few days with old family friends, Sally and Hannah Gillespie. From there they would travel on to Mexico to meet their son's family.

On August 15, Elizabeth and the three children flew to Mexico City. They were met there by Robert Ellis, a painter the Griffins had known since 1953, and his wife, Rosa, a native of Mexico. After more than three hours in customs, a kindly clerk intervened, allowing the Ellises (who were bilingual) to enter the glassed-encased area. Everything was settled quickly and the weary Texas family was waved through. Robert Ellis drove them 45 miles to Toluca, to the home of Rosa's family, where they met the couple's two-year-old daughter, Erendira, for the first time.

Griffin stayed on alone in Mansfield through August 15, to challenge the racists with their deadline, but no violence occurred. He sold the last of his parents' furniture and traded his English Ford in on a 1960 Corvair, figuring that since Chevrolet had plants in Mexico, parts for it would be easier to find.

Early on the morning of August 18, Griffin loaded the car with everything he could squeeze into it. Elizabeth had taken six large suitcases containing their clothes. He loaded the photography equipment, a record player and boxes of albums, a recorder and tapes, and enough cookware and dishes and utensils to begin a new life. It was his intention to relocate permanently in Santa María del Guido, a little village on a mountainside overlooking Morelia. The plan was to remodel an old hacienda owned by his brother, Edgar, and to send the children to a French lycée in Morelia. Meanwhile, he was packed to capacity, with only a tunnel between the rear-view mirror and the back windshield and, with a touch of unplanned humor, an ironing board thrusting nearly halfway out the passenger window.

He described his departure after he had arrived in Mexico. "I began again to keep this Journal after a long silence. I, who wanted so much to leave the horrors of this past experience, to come to Mexico, left one morning with the car loaded. Instead of relief and joy, I experienced an immense, almost pathological sadness. I drove out of Mansfield where I have lived 13 years and no one said good-bye or good luck. Most were invisible, but those on the streets simply stared after me, convinced I have no doubt that they had driven the bastard away."

Griffin drove southwest across the Staked Plains region of Texas, which he had written about in Land of the High Sky a few years before. "A tremendous heaviness filled me and I could not shake it." He laid over in an El Paso motel, after a long, hot day and 450 miles. The next morning he drove to a border check, passed through customs, and crossed the bridge over the Rio Grande into Mexico. Late that night he drove around the sprawling metropolis of Mexico City, and continued west to Toluca. He arrived at the home of Rosa Ellis' family about four in the morning, on August 20. The house was dark and everyone was asleep. Robert Ellis responded quickly to the knock at the door. The two old friends greeted each other as "compadre," in the traditional manner they had adopted in the early 1950s. The painter knew how tired Griffin must be, because Ellis had made countless trips to Mexico from his Texas birthplace of Jacksboro (about 50 miles northwest of Mansfield).

On the morning of August 21, the Griffins and Ellises set out in a caravan across the mountains west toward Michoacán. After a grinding eight-hour day through 200 miles of winding roads, they arrived in Morelia and took rooms in a downtown hotel. Within a few days, Griffin had rented a furnished apartment in the mountain village. Santa María del Guido would be their new home in Mexico. Once the Griffins had settled in, the Ellises returned to their home in Valle de Bravo.

For the remainder of August and all of September, they lived in an apartment across the street from the Villa Montana Restaurant. Early during their stay, they became well acquainted with the owner of the restaurant, Ramon Cote, and the delicious traditional cuisine he offered.

But they also cooked in the apartment kitchen, shopped at the local market, and began to speak Spanish, while learning the terrain of the charming little village. For the first time ever, Elizabeth had a maid and this freed her to take the children to market, while Griffin oversaw the remodeling of Edgar's hacienda.

One evening in September, as Griffin was playing a Mozart record, he heard a different Mozart piece singing through the thin wall separating their apartment from the one next door. Griffin knocked on that door and invited the couple for coffee. He was astonished to discover Luis Berber, conductor of Los Niños Cantores de Morelia (known worldwide as "The Singing Boys of Mexico"), and his wife, Wilenne, a native of Fort Worth, close to Mansfield. This chance meeting began a lasting friendship.

A few days later, they met Barbara and Don Shoemaker, also Americans in Mexico, who owned a prosperous furniture shop in the village. Through the Shoemakers and Berbers, the new family became known and trusted in the village. Meanwhile, Griffin's parents had arrived from New Mexico, immediately renting the guest house at the Denton Estate, owned by wealthy Americans then in Europe. The Griffin family moved into the main house. "All of us are well," he wrote in his Journal, "we live in the Denton home, with high stone walls around a large grounds filled with flowers — a splendid and cheerful home to occupy while we wait for Edgar's house to be finished. I work in the guest room, separated from the main house by a patio. It is a typical native room with red brick floors, white adobe walls, a corner fireplace, windows looking out to the mountains. The room has a private bath which I have turned into a darkroom. I have lost myself in film work."


The Artist in Exile

During the autumn of 1960, Griffin finally settled into a productive cycle of writing, photography and research at the Denton house. He realized that the fears and frustrations of the Mansfield aftermath to his Deep South journey had left him in a state of depression and that all the moving had been dislocating. "I knew I was reacting dangerously and sought to counter it, but the effects went too deep and it has taken me almost two months to regain sufficient voice to put anything down on paper." Now that he was secure in the new studio and darkroom, the emotional wounds had healed and he had gained a certain aesthetic distance from his experiment. His task became a matter of reshaping the story he had written about in the Sepia magazine series, "Journey Into Shame," into the book that would become Black Like Me. Before writing again, he had immersed himself in every aspect of photography, aiming for a higher level of technical control. "Thank God," he said that "there was this absorption in something new."

This Mexico period would mark his breakthrough as a visual artist. Simultaneously, it also initiated a deep understanding of the creative harmony achievable in combining photography and writing. He would develop this fresh vision over the entire span of his exile, from September 1960 to May 1961. He outlined the goal in his Journal:

The desire to do my own photography, and in some way to combine it with my writing, would not leave me. I wanted to see if my eye could capture the particular modality that had haunted me in my loss of sight, and again in my recovery of sight: To catch humanity not in its drama so much as its truth, its intelligence.

When Griffin had been without sight between 1946-1957, he felt that he could peer into the heart of a person, that he could sense a truth he could not see with his eyes. He heard it in the naked tone of their unguarded voices. He was able to perceive in a way as mysterious as it was objective, like a lens that could "see without partiality," a truth that the sighted overlooked.

In "Notes on Photography," a typescript composed at the Denton house, Griffin searched for a way to clarify what might obscure his eye to what the lens revealed: To see what was really there, rather than being trapped once again in the unconscious phenomenon of selective inattention. He believed that "the personal vision of the photographer" — not the acuity of eyesight but one's vision of essences — "can and does make the originality of his work."

If his vision is purely visual, then he can only produce images. If his vision is philosophical, then the work will take on a density of concept that opens the door to originality even in the most banal shots.

He must develop taste — so that what he selects (from all the possible elements to photograph in a subject) creates the illusion of reality rather than merely the greater clutter that is always involved in reality. He must go through great complexity, for every image, every communication is immensely complex, in order to arrive at simplicity — in order to make his vision speak his own language.

His photographic approach to this problem of perceiving what is there — instead of substituting a stereotype or projecting one's own subjectivity upon the subject — was evolving as "something more than the 'know your subject' conventionality."

I looked upon my neighbors, the Tarascans, and sought those elements in their culture that were universal to all men, and then sought those elements that were special to their ancient and beautiful culture: qualities of tenderness and dignity toward children; extreme fidelity to friendship; generosity and simplicity. And in the framework of the universal, to capture something of these other individualizing elements.


Excerpted from Available Light by John Howard Griffin, Robert Bonazzi. Copyright © 2010 Estate of John Howard Griffin and Elizabeth Griffin-Bonazzi. Excerpted by permission of Wings Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

John Howard Griffin is best known as the author of the classic Black Like Me, first published in 1961, an account of his experiences traveling through the American deep South disguised as a black man. He was also an accomplished photographer and the author of several other books, including A Hidden Wholeness: The Visual World of Thomas Merton and Scattered Shadows: A Memoir of Blindness and Vision.

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