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Man in the Mirror
John Howard Griffin and the Story of Black Like Me
By Robert Bonazzi
Wings PressCopyright © 2010 Robert Bonazzi
All rights reserved.
Traveler, there is no path. Paths are made by walking.
— Antonio Machado
I experience newness every day and write of it as the first tasting of passionate interest. I write in order to seek understanding.
— John Howard Griffin
THE UNANSWERED QUESTION
The most common question asked of Griffin after the Black Like Me journey was, in his estimation, also the least relevant question.
Why, they asked, had he done such a thing? Why had an educated white man and well-known novelist abandoned the security of family life to risk becoming an anonymous Negro in the Deep South? Variations of this question were asked constantly and, inevitably, Griffin's motives came under scrutiny.
He remarked that it was a question black people never asked him.
Griffin believed that white people had asked the question because they were unwilling to face their own rationalized racism (as he had done). Instead, they tried, beyond mere curiosity, to discredit his motivations in order to deny the truth of his experience.
Rather than attempt to explain his personal reasons for the journey, Griffin offered an "official" explanation. He said he was researching the escalation of black male suicides in the South and, because he believed the only way to discover the real causes was to experience black reality directly, he had to become a Negro.
He documented this "official" explanation in A Time to Be Human, his final work on the subject of racism, by providing detailed information about his premise and its data. He had begun by mailing out a questionnaire — to whites and blacks — in the classic mode of the social sciences. However, the replies he received soon convinced him that this basic "objective" approach was useless. He discovered that while many opinions had been gathered, the data revealed no truths.
The replies he received from whites were usually the same; they did not believe that black people committed suicide. "They are just naturally happy-go-lucky people," opined one white correspondent. "When something troubles a Negro," said another, "he goes out and finds a shady spot under a tree and sleeps it off."
Griffin discovered that two things were obvious in these replies from whites. "First, I could not question the sincerity of these people. We have been brought up to believe these myths about blacks. Second, it was evident that no matter how distinguished a person might be, or how much the vast majority accepted such myths, the myths were untrue. The history of suicides among black people and other minorities in this land is, and has always been, appalling. To suggest that black people, by racial characteristic, never commit suicide is simply to lie in the face of fact and history."
The responses of black people to the questionnaire were entirely different — that is, from the few who replied. He was "astonished" that every questionnaire returned to him contained no answers to the questions. "The few that were returned blank were accompanied by explanatory letters. These said, in essence, 'We don't answer this kind of questionnaire anymore. We have answered them in the past but we will not answer them in the future.' For the first time one used the term I had never heard before, but I found it accurate and illuminating. He said, 'You probably can't help it, but you think white.' One black sociologist wrote that, 'We don't believe it's possible for a white man, even one trained in the sciences, to interpret his findings without thinking white and thereby falsifying the truth.' "
In the context of offering his "official" explanation, Griffin would add something similar to the following. "It seemed to me that if I could take on the skin of a black man, live whatever might happen and then share that experience with others, perhaps at the level of shared experience we might come to some understanding that was not possible at the level of pure reason."
In effect, he attempted to communicate human experience at the level of human understanding; being human — rather than merely thinking white or black.
On less public occasions, he gave a more personal answer. "I think it finally boiled down to the fact that I had three children. I knew without a doubt that my own formation, no matter how benevolent, had filled me with prejudices at deep levels that had probably handicapped me for life. And I did not want my children, or the children of any person (of any color), to grow up in a climate of permissive suppression of fellow human beings if I could do anything to prevent it. In other words, my deepest motive was simply to preserve my children and the children of others from the dehumanizing poison of racism."
In an interview with Latitudes magazine, in 1966, Griffin echoed this answer quoted from A Time to Be Human, except he added something else entirely. "I tell people simply that I don't want my children to become racists. And that's a good enough answer, even though it is not the real answer."
Why was it not the real answer? "In the first place, it was nobody's damned business what my motives were. It's true that I don't want any child growing up being a nasty little klansman with distorted views of what fellow human beings are. But the very idea of anyone probing the privacy of another man's conscience, it seems to me, is the greatest obscenity we know today. I utterly refuse to judge a man's motives," he emphasized, "because I don't think you can know a man's motives. And I think this is a frightful, obscene thing to do, and it is also highly dubious."
The integrity of the act was significant for Griffin. Any attempt to affix a motive to a particular action — to psychoanalyze or judge from a distance — was appalling to him. He believed that the fascinating questions emerged from the examination of cultural formations of prejudice. If there were real answers, they would be discoverable in the learned behavioral patterns of a society, because everyone is conditioned by the same cultural cliches, immersed in the same system of unconscious values that are consciously reinforced. The real question must be why is America a racist society and not why Griffin disguised himself as a black man. Black Like Me, clarified by his later work, answers the real question; the questions about his motivation for the experiment are answered, indirectly, by the events and influences that led up to that bold encounter.
Griffin's own past conditioning — American in general but specifically that of the traditional South — taught him the "whole mythology of race." This racist myth of white supremacy was exposed ruthlessly in Black Like Me and explored, with an ever-deepening understanding, in his subsequent work — in the books, articles and lectures of the 1960s to mid-1970s and most comprehensively in A Time to Be Human, published in 1977.
Griffin knew the essential importance of examining one's own background and conditioning, of understanding one's reactions to new situations and the changing effects of those experiences; but he believed firmly that true knowledge was first a matter of personal experience and second a matter of self-criticism. He did not learn about war or pain, about blindness or paralysis, about racism or black experience by reading about them; yes, he read and he listened to those who had known such realities — but his true knowledge came from living. His understanding of that knowledge came from self-criticism and reflective insight. It could not be fully understood from any other point of view; his was a personal witness beyond the vantage of academic armchairs and psychoanalytic couches, beyond any view of thinking white. He felt no necessity to explain his reasons in the search for justice any more than he, as an artist, needed to explain his creative process in the quest for art.
A SOUTHERN CHILDHOOD
Both the "official" answer and Griffin's "personal" answer were "good enough" answers because they were actual parts of the complete or "real" answer. Even if the complete answer cannot be known, Griffin did reveal additional details that will illuminate a fuller portrait.
In his case, we are looking at a self-portrait, for which he painted this background. "My childhood was Southern in the old sense, the terrible sense," he told John Egerton in 1970. "We were not rich but not poor either; we were genteel Southerners, and I was taught the whole mythology of race."
He was born in Dallas, on June 16, 1920, the second of four children. The Dallas of some seventy-five years ago must not be confused with the Texas metropolis of today. While it still continues to be the most conservative large city in the state, at the time of Griffin's birth it was strictly segregationist and racist in the intractable mold of the Deep South. Its neighboring city and traditional rival, Fort Worth, more liberal then and now, advertises itself as the place "where the West begins." However, in 1920, this entire area of North Texas was (and in some aspects yet remains) the place where the South continues.
His father, John (Jack) Griffin, was a wholesale grocer descended from a long line of Georgia Griffins who were mostly of Irish ancestry, but Southern Baptist rather than Catholic. His mother, Lena Mae Young, was a classically trained musician who tutored piano students; her lineage was Pennsylvania Dutch and she was a devout Episcopalian. Both parents were born in Dallas; and married there, when Jack was twenty-two and Lena was only sixteen. Griffin's brother, Edgar, was the first-born, in 1918; his twin sisters, Jacquelyn and Kathlyn (known as Jackie and Katie), were born in 1922. By all accounts, Howard (who later added "John" as a pen-name), was Lena's favorite child. She had a powerful influence on his early moral and social development.
His mother imbued him with a great love of classical music, trained him in basic pedagogy and tutored him at the keyboard. He was endowed with perfect pitch and a photographic memory; he could play by ear and sight- read, and knew many of the scores from memory. He was gifted enough to entertain dreams of becoming a composer and a concert pianist. Even though these dreams were never realized, the musical masterworks would remain a central fascination throughout life, influencing the forms of his novels.
While he became only a decent pianist and an amateur composer, his gifts as a young musician would be fulfilled eventually in the role of musicologist, with particular emphasis in the area of ancient religious music. He was a "model child" who became an altar boy in the Episcopal Church and an excellent student in the Fort Worth school system (in which all the Griffin children were educated when the family left Dallas).
In junior high school he was impassioned by the sciences as well as by literature, augmenting his studies with readings from The Harvard Classics, which were passed on to him, volume by volume, by his maternal grandfather. He never ceased reading or listening to music but, little by little, his pursuit of the sciences became the boy's primary focus. However, he became frustrated by the limited curriculum and pace of public school education; he felt thwarted by the low ceiling placed on scientific experimentation and the fact that he was unable to study Latin and Greek, which were not offered. By his early teens, he began to search elsewhere for knowledge.
When he spotted a newspaper advertisement for a boys' school in France, he wrote the headmaster, pleading that he would do anything to gain admittance — including maintenance work (specifically telling the headmaster he would sweep floors). Six months later — elfter he had forgotten about it — he received a letter of acceptance from the Lycée Descartes in Tours, France. He was offered a full scholarship. No sweeping would be required but fluency in French would be necessary for all coursework. In addition, his parents had to pay for passage (they could afford only a one-way ticket) and had to provide him with a small monthly allowance (which might not reach him promptly since this was prior to air mail delivery).
"It was a horrendous sacrifice," he said in a 1978 interview, because his parents believed that France was "utterly immoral" and they were suspicious of Catholicism — and "they didn't know which was worse." However, after extensive consultation with some of the boy's teachers, with their Episcopal priest and the family doctor, his parents were convinced to let him try.
The next six years would change Griffin's life profoundly, but while France did reshape him in many senses, his unconscious racism would remain. When he reached Tours, he carried little luggage but a load of provincial baggage. Certainly he was extremely bright, eager and idealistic, but he was poorly educated by European standards, immensely challenged by the rigorous discipline of achieving a "classical education" in a new language, and incredibly naive.
Concerning his background, which fostered a monolithic sense of white supremacy he would have denied as a teenager, Griffin described it in these terms in a 1970 interview. "I had the black mammy, the summers in the country; and the kind, Southern, slave-owner mentality was drilled into me, and veneered over with paternalism. We were taught to be good and kind, and we were given the destructive illusion that Negroes were somehow different." He said, however, that his father had "never implanted any of these ideas in me" on a conscious level and that his parents "were horrified at lynching" — and yet, "in a way, we were practicing slavery every day."
A generation later, black journalist and media personality Bob Ray Sanders, who was born in Fort Worth in 1947, experienced prejudice in that segregated society. He once pointed out, however, that it had been "a gentle racism," which he knew was "a contradiction in terms ... but that's the only way I can describe it." Sanders's phrase, "a gentle racism," sounds precisely like Griffin's remark that "we were genteel Southerners." Both impressions reveal the insidious reality of benign neglect and paternal prejudice that characterized the attitude of at least two generations of whites in North Texas. What Sanders had experienced in the late 1940s and in the decade of the 1950s — from the black perspective — was only marginally less demeaning than what Griffin had experienced from the white perspective during the 1920s and 1930s. Sanders was, of course, more aware of the later, subtler mode of racism, while Griffin was entirely unaware of the earlier, harsher mode of prejudice that dictated his white background (which he would deny until decades later).
As Griffin's parents were products of their Southern culture so were their children. But the Griffins were not overtly bigoted and, in fact, his maternal grandfather from Pennsylvania was undoubtedly less prejudiced than the relatives on his paternal side. In A Time to Be Human, Griffin wrote of his "first vivid memory" of racism that began "with the word 'nigger,'" when, as a child, he had uttered the slur in speaking about a black customer in his grandfather's grocery store in south Dallas. "I had scarcely spoken when I was jolted by a hard slap across my face and by the anger in my grandfather's voice as he snapped, 'They're people — don't you ever let me hear you call them niggers again.'"
That incident was doubly significant, because he greatly admired his maternal grandfather, Samuel Clements Young, who had introduced the boy to a world of ideas beyond the provincial mind-set. Yet, even though his grandfather had ignited an enthusiasm for serious reading, he had also passed along that subtle paternalism toward black people, which remained unchanged in the boy's unconsciousness.
That slap awakened him to the most basic level of racism that his family had rejected — one who was "genteel" did not condone lynching, did not call black people by those crude epithets. "We were taught to look down on the viciously prejudiced, to view them as 'white trash,'" he wrote in A Time to Be Human, but the subtler attitudes continued uncorrected, out of awareness. "Many of us in the South had a formation that built racial prejudice in us and at the same time persuaded us that we were not prejudiced; we had the kind of experiences that turned us into racists without our ever understanding what was happening to us."
Excerpted from Man in the Mirror by Robert Bonazzi. Copyright © 2010 Robert Bonazzi. Excerpted by permission of Wings Press.
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