Prison of Culture: Beyond Black Like Me

Prison of Culture: Beyond Black Like Me

by John Howard Griffin, Robert Bonazzi, Studs Terkel

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The companion volume to the 50th-anniversary edition of Black Like Me, this book features John Howard Griffin’s later writings on racism and spirituality. Conveying a progressive evolution in thinking, it further explores Griffin’s ethical stand in the human rights struggle and nonviolent pursuit of equality—a view he shared with greats such


The companion volume to the 50th-anniversary edition of Black Like Me, this book features John Howard Griffin’s later writings on racism and spirituality. Conveying a progressive evolution in thinking, it further explores Griffin’s ethical stand in the human rights struggle and nonviolent pursuit of equality—a view he shared with greats such as Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., and Thomas Merton. Enlightening and forthright, this record also focuses on Griffin’s spiritual grounding in the Catholic monastic tradition, discussing the illuminating meditations on suffering and the author’s own reflections on communication, justice, and dying.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"This collection of writings, chosen to complement Black like Me, provides a portrait of the effects of racial discrimination on Americans of color, as well as insight into Griffin's reasons for his experiment and his fundamental human decency. . . . It also introduces readers to the complex heritage of Christian traditions both in opposing and in maintaining the racial system in the US. . . . Highly recommended." —

"Prison of Culture is a valuable collection of essays by a creative, daring, and moral individual who is better known for his amazingly courageous Black Like Me. . . . John Howard Griffin's reputation as a voice of moral conscience is strong, clear, and essential." —Texas Books in Review

"His trenchant essays are written with intensity and passion. His prose style is clear and forceful. People who grew up during the years of struggle for equal rights will find in Prison of Culture commentary that brings alive those times of intense moral crises. Readers today will find in these essays the truth in American philosopher George Santanya's statement that those who are ignorant of the past are doomed to repeat the past's mistakes. The prejudice and injustice of the past must never be forgotten. Prison of Culture should exist for modern readers who may have let themselves lose sight of the wrongs that still persist." —Kenneth W. Davis, Texas Books in Review

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Wings Press
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Prison of Culture

Beyond Black Like Me

By John Howard Griffin, Robert Bonazzi

Wings Press

Copyright © 2011 The Estate of John Howard Griffin and Elizabeth Griffin-Bonazzi
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-60940-149-8


Privacy of Conscience

After the publication of Black Like Me, everyone was after me to explain my motive for doing such a thing. In the first place, it was nobody's damned business what my motives were. There is no more respect for the privacy of conscience. I tell them simply, I don't want my children becoming racists. And that's a good enough answer, even though it's not the real answer. I don't want any children to grow up to be nasty little klansmen with distorted views of what fellow human beings are. But the very idea of anyone probing into the privacy of another man's conscience is almost the greatest obscenity.

I think we have to struggle to grant every man the maximum amount of freedom and so I loathe every kind of totalitarianism. I don't care where it comes from, I loathe anything that impugns a man's right to fulfill himself. And certainly totalitarianism implies the suppression of fellow human beings in one way or the other. We have to work to assure every man the maximum right to function as fully and freely as possible. There is no such thing as an inherent right to impugn someone else's rights; and it is an utter distortion to claim the freedom to deny someone else's freedom. We must see that all men truly have equal rights and then just leave everybody alone. This trying to gobble everyone up, to make him conform to our individual or group prejudices, our religious or philosophical convictions — and seeking to suppress him if he doesn't — is the deepest cultural neurosis I know.

I utterly refuse to judge a man's motives because I don't think you can know a man's motives. I think this is a frightful, obscene thing to do. I think it is also highly dubious. Any man — the moment he impugns my rights or your rights — must be battled, because he is involved in a terrible thing; he is involved in the destruction of the common good.

These things come from far deeper. I think the most vicious racists I have encountered have a disease. There is nobody for whom I feel a deeper pity than these distorted human beings. And I have studied them for over twenty-five years without having the slightest certainty that I know one bit more about their motives now than I did then.

What I do know is the culturation that they have gone through, the formation: they are imprisoned in these cultural, learned behavior patterns and are frightfully handicapped by them. How can you set up norms for either discovering or interpreting the motives of people with a great complex set of neuroses? I think the very act, at least by a layman, is an essentially degrading thing. It degrades the person who is doing it rather than the person to whom it is done.

We have read a great many postmortem analyses, we have read all these analyses of Hitler, but I don't think we know enough. We are only now discovering the effects of biochemistry on the nervous system. How can you know these things, particularly when you are doing it on the basis of letters, or on the basis of conversations that people have had? How can you know that some killer didn't have high blood sugar on the day that caused him to detach from conscious awareness?

I think it is a mistake to examine your motives too closely. The most damaging aphorism in history is the aphorism: "Know Thyself." The quicker you can lose interest in yourself, the better you can function as a human being. I have a lot of young people write me, doing wonderful things, but worried to death about the truth of their motives. I discourage them from this kind of examination. Because if we act only from the purest, most balanced, most healthy motives, we would come to a screeching standstill. What do we do from pure motives? It is a kind of self-pride even to discover those things and it seems to me the quicker you get rid of self-consciousness the better you can function. Who cares? What a monstrous kind of pride this is. You can examine yourself to a halt in all, until you are afraid to do anything. And I don't think it is interesting what one's motives are once the act is done.

The main theme of the work about racism centers on this prison of cultural formation that almost always leads a man of one culture to believe that he is intrinsically different from men of other cultures. And profoundly different: different in his aspirations, needs, responses to stimuli. This is one of the most difficult problems involved in racism. We tend to think that the victim group somehow likes it that way; that its members respond to frustration, for example, in a manner totally different from us. And along with this, goes that other tendency to view members of all other cultures as merely underdeveloped versions of ourselves. We get the ugly American, then; and the missionary mentality that wants always to bring the other cultures up to "our level."

I helped prepare a program for French National Television about this a couple of years ago. We demonstrated that when racism begins, the first thing that goes out the window is respect for due process of law. We documented it with cases of black people in the South being involved in block round-ups, not informed of their rights, and denied them if they happened to know these rights. When the pattern is established, then it spreads to any non-member of a victim group who happens not to be a racist. When we were certain all of France was outraged, we did the last twenty minutes in France, showing exactly the same patterns held with the Arab population in Paris. They were picked up, subjected to third degree methods, denied due process.

These are the basic patterns that can lead men from an apparently benign form of racism to the most vicious forms. They know how quickly the one can pave the way for the other, how quickly the little yeses can lead to the great and terrible yeses that have scarred the lives of so many victims of racism. And these basic patterns hold. Any black person gets them to the point of nausea.

For example, in lecturing throughout this land, going rapidly from one city to another, I speak to crowds of sincere and concerned people. I will be warmly received. Afterward, in almost every community, someone of importance will come to me, shake my hand and say how good it is to hear these great principles clarified. But then, in virtually every instance, he will add: "But, of course, we have a different situation here." One gets the uneasy impression that we are becoming a nation of exceptions to the very principles that we applaud and think we espouse.

The same holds true in Europe. When I lectured in Belgium on the problem of racism, I was enthusiastically received. After one lecture, a doctor came to me with tears in his yes and grasped my hand, explaining that he had been a missionary in Africa for fifteen years.

"What a marvelous speech," he said. "But of course our situation in the Congo is different. American blacks are so much more evolved than our poor Congolese. American blacks should have all their rights. It is going to take generations before our Congolese are ready for their rights."

How familiar it sounded. There were five Congolese in the audience, and I could not resist introducing them to the doctor. One had a licentiate in International Law, another was preparing his licentiate; two others had Ph.D.'s; and the fifth was a physician. The Belgian doctor was charmed by them, but never got the point.

Later, I could not keep quiet and told him: "Doctor, you have met one hundred percent of my Congolese audience tonight. Each of those men was born in the bush. Just how unevolved can a people get?"

Since James Baldwin hurled the challenge at "white" Christianity to put up or shut up, we have seen some reevaluation and even some important changes, but these are far from being sufficiently widespread as yet to nullify the deep scandal of segregation. Black people often have contempt for what they call "the white man's God."

We have driven blacks to this stance and thereby alienated men in the deepest and most damaging way — a way that damages not only the victim group but the total community. A good deal of the contempt of the young for my generation's values springs directly from this, and we should thank God our failures appear so disgusting to them.

I heard it put very accurately in a session with a group of Chicago slum priests. Father Fichter, a noted sociologist at Yale, remarked: "We have consistently failed to do what we know is right out of a fear of what might hypothetically happen." I have never heard it said better. Almost the first reaction of churchmen is: "Yes, but if we do such and such, it might lead to an even worse condition." Seldom do I hear churchmen say that such and such is either morally right or wrong, or even base their judgments on the very principles they profess.

If I had known how it would develop, I would have written Black Like Me more completely. I thought, and my publishers agreed, that this would be an obscure work, of interest primarily to sociologists. I therefore limited the experiment to the Deep South, and I also did not include a number of experiences. I failed, for example, to write much about religious institutions. I have been criticized for this, and it is a most valid criticism. I did not write about it for two reasons.

First, I was so deeply shocked to be driven away from churches which would have welcomed me any time as a white man that I did not know how to handle this. I feared I might be committing an injustice to write about it without proper time to think about it. Second, in my naiveté, I was certain that as soon as these conditions were made known to the Church leadership, the matter would be corrected. Well, I made them known and was given only the most blatant kinds of rationalizations to justify them by the very leadership I had thought would bring corrective measures. When I saw that nothing was going to be done, that the official Church was not going to rock any boats, I published a piece about my own confusion after being driven from the "house of God" when outside I heard the voices from within singing hymns to Jesus.

Perhaps my major fascination as a novelist is centered around man's pressures to become part of the crowd, part of the scene, part of the monolith. I am tremendously preoccupied with the problems of loners, or men who struggle to go it alone. To go with the crowd makes a man seek the average instead of what is truly his own normalcy, his own truth. Men do this and end up being all alike — one mediocrity is like another — and they realize too late. All the pressures of society tend to conformity, to the crowd, to the monolith that eventually tries to destroy the one who is different, the one who has tried to be true to his vision. The merely average hates true normalcy, as though it were hating the reminder of a dream long lost.

In Nazi Germany it ended up killing everything that differed from the average, everything that did not fit the monolith. It is an historic problem. Pascal knew it when he said we must speak like the crowd but hold our own thoughts secret. Sometimes men have to follow that sorry advice because society will kill them. But if they follow it long enough, they end up having no "true" thoughts to keep secret.

Again, it is the problem of the intrinsic Other. It is a problem that grows rapidly in this land where too many men are coming to the conclusion that perhaps we had better put the dissenters in jail; put those who think differently out of the way; and destroy them for the very freedom we loudly claim for the crowd.

— 1966


The Intrinsic Other

Lionel Trilling has remarked that culture is a prison unless we know the key that unlocks the door.

And it is a common anthropological truism that the "prisoners" of any given culture tend to regard those of almost any other culture, no matter how authentic that culture, as merely underdeveloped versions of their own imprisoning culture.

The language that men use constantly reveals this attitude. We then hear of: "The immoral French. The godless Russians. The snobbish English. The shifty Orientals. The grasping Jew. The savage Negro. And the ugly American."

Even when we may be totally unaware that we possess such attitudes of racial or ethnic superiority, our language expresses these judgments in a glaringly clear manner. "Some of my best friends are Jews," we say. Or, "Personally, I am very fond of Negroes, but I would not want to live next door to one."

One of characteristics of our expression of such attitudes is that they are often perfectly natural to the speaker and unnatural to the hearer. They reveal in the speaker the falsity of viewing others as intrinsically other, intrinsically different as men. This intrinsic difference always implies some degree of inferiority.

Racist attitudes begin benignly enough from this basic concept of the other as intrinsically Other. Once one views others as "different," the stereotype develops.

Implicit in this process is a consent to racism. Edmund Burke gave us the touchstone of this error when he said: "I know of no way of drawing up an indictment against a whole people."

Racism begins when we draw up an indictment against a whole people merely by considering them as a whole underdeveloped versions of ourselves, by perpetuating the blindness of the stereotype.

The Nazis drew up an indictment against a whole people, the world Jewish community. And once the indictment was drawn, and far more importantly, once mankind consented to the indictment and did not cry No! — the rest followed: the dehumanization of the total community, Jewish and Nazi.

In America and Africa, we have drawn up an indictment against whole peoples, the dark-skinned peoples. This has led to the dehumanization of all men, white and black. And once the error is accepted, then other victim groups are engulfed. The Klans of America are not only anti-Negro, but anti-Jewish, anti-Catholic, anti-Other.

Let me repeat that this is insidious, because it is often done in good faith, is often accomplished with an illusion of benevolence. It leads to master delusion. The delusion lies in the fact that no matter how well we think we know the Other, we still judge from within the imprisoning framework of our own limited cultural criteria, we speak within the cliché of the stereotype.

I have known missionaries, splendidly cultivated men, who have spent years in other cultures without ever penetrating the other culture, who go on judging everything by the limited criteria of the educated European or American. In my own life, this error was once thrown in my face.

I was living on a Pacific island doing language studies. I considered, with great affection, my subjects to be "primitives" or "aboriginals" and even "unevolved people." There was no question but that theirs was an "inferior" and mine a "superior" culture. They were Other.

After many months on the island, however, whenever I went from one village to another through the jungles, I still had to have a five-year-old lad guide me. If I were lost, I would not have known how to survive, what to eat in the jungles. It became obvious to me that within the context of that culture, I was clearly inferior — an adult man who could not have survived without the guidance of a child. And from the point of view of the local inhabitants — a valid point of view — I was Other, inferior, and they were superior.

But such perceptions are difficult because our culture forms us in attitudes at the emotional level very early in our lives. These learned behavior patterns are so profoundly ingrained in us that we tend to call them human nature, which they are not at all. But nevertheless, even when we are intellectually liberated from our prejudices, we often remain emotionally imprisoned by them.


Excerpted from Prison of Culture by John Howard Griffin, Robert Bonazzi. Copyright © 2011 The Estate of John Howard Griffin and Elizabeth Griffin-Bonazzi. Excerpted by permission of Wings Press.
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Meet the Author

John Howard Griffin was a musicologist who served, and was injured, in the Air Force during World War II. Blind for a decade, Griffin became an acclaimed novelist and essayist and when his sight returned, almost miraculously, he became a remarkable portrait photographer. Following his cross-racial exploration in the South, he was personally vilified, hanged in effigy in his hometown, threatened with death, and severely beaten by the Klu Klux Klan. Respected internationally as a human rights activist, he worked with major Civil Rights leaders throughout the era, taught at the University of Peace, and delivered more than a 1,200 lectures in the United States and abroad. He is the author of The Devil Rides Outside.

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