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Black Like Me: A Modern American Classic

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December 13, 2011
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By Robert Bonazzi

Published in the Modern American Classic edition of Black Like Me, Penguin Group, 2010

In 1959 John Howard Griffin—a white novelist from Texas disguised as a Negro—began a six week journey through the segregated Deep South. Fifty years later his personal testament for human rights has become a modern American classic.

In Black Like Me Griffin’s unique double perspective and lucid insights remain relevant today, and his cogent critique still illuminates the principles and evils of racism. It continues to be required reading at all educational levels, available in English worldwide and in current French, Japanese and South Korean translations. More than 12 million copies of this international best seller have been sold in 14 languages.

With the simple act of darkening his pigment, Griffin encountered a complex reality unknown to white people. “My deepest shock came with the gradual realization that this was not a matter of ‘inconvenience’ but rather a total change in living.”

Black Like Me maps racial borders from the necessary social adjustments a Negro had to make during that segregated era to the subtle shifts in perception and response that emerge from Griffin’s emotional recesses. These changes are demonstrated in unexpected revelations, in the immediacy of his journal’s intimate disclosures, and by the reader’s identification with the “secret identity” of the author.

Reaching the first critical turn in Black Like Me, when Griffin first stares at the mirror, we are startled by the sudden shock and his antipathy for the “stranger—a fierce, bald, very dark Negro” who “glares” back at him. This causes a foreboding and a deep fracture. “I became two men, ” he writes, “the observing one and the one who panicked, who felt Negroid even into the depths of his entrails.” Initially he clings to his familiar inner white identity that seems to be disappearing toward oblivion, while rejecting the darker appearance of the unknown “stranger” he observes. “The worst of it,” he admits, “was that I could feel no companionship with this new person. I did not like the way he looked.” At that moment, Griffin realizes that he has encountered his own unconscious racism.

Beginning with this pivotal confession, Griffin faces the mirror five subsequent times in the book. Used as formal literary device, the mirror reflects his evolution toward achieving a balance between the two perspectives once split. Black Like Me reads like a novel bound to an ethical treatise, evoking intense reality through the masterful use of fictional techniques. Griffin’s critically-acclaimed novels—The Devil Rides Outside (1952) and Nuni (1956)—were written as first-person journals also. This was how he began to write fiction, in 1949, because it was the only method he knew and it became his most natural form. His journals, kept from 1950 to 1980, cover three thousand typescript pages, and were the basis for his many autobiographical works.

However, Griffin did not decide to rework his journal as the text of Black Like Me until after failing to make sense of the experiment through a scientific approach. Trained in medicine, his first intention was to objectify the experiment, but that effort failed because statistical analysis did not evoke his actual experience. Griffin composed the classic book (from handwritten notebooks kept on his journey) in Mexico, where he had moved his young family after receiving death threats from local racists in Mansfield, Texas. They did not return until early 1961, and this “lost” chapter of his life is retold in Available Light: Exile in Mexico (2008), one of the posthumously published works from the Griffin Estate.

After Black Like Me appeared in late 1961, Griffin traveled monthly for the next dozen years on the lecture circuit. Always he was asked why he had changed skin color, and he considered it “the most irrelevant question, and one that black people never asked.” He thought that true understanding emerged from examining the cultural formations of prejudice and he further explored race relations in several later works, most openly in a final autobiographical book, A Time To Be Human (1977).

Yet he believed that Black Like Me had been rooted in earlier experiences—most dramatically in his loss of eyesight from a severe concussion suffered in World War II, followed by a miraculous recovery of vision a decade later. During blindness, he said that “racism became a preoccupation.”

In Scattered Shadows: A Memoir of Blindness and Vision (2004), another unfinished book, Griffin writes: “For the blind man, the whole issue of racism on the basis of inferiority according to color or race is solved axiomatically. He can only see the heart and the intelligence of a man, and nothing in these things indicates in the slightest whether a man is white or black, but only whether he is wise or foolish.” He learned to understand the limitations of relying almost exclusively on eyesight. “The racists can see but they have no perception. Is not the gift of sight then being abused, since it leads men to judge an object by the accident of its color rather than by its real substance—is a red table any more of a table than a green one?”

Scattered Shadows illuminates the interior world of darkness that the sighted could not perceive just as Black Like Me penetrates the inner life of Negroes that whites could not experience, and rarely acknowledged. The thematic parallels are striking despite different social contexts, for both are about the same man immersed in unique encounters with Otherness. As blindness was perceived then by the sighted as a tragic handicap and an intrinsically different condition, so had white society prejudged all Negroes as intrinsically different and inferior based solely on skin color.

“A man loses his sight then, but let it be understood that he loses nothing else,” writes Griffin. “He does not lose his intelligence, his taste, his sensitivity, his ideals or his right to respect. It is a grave mistake to think that blindness places a person into a given category of behavioristic patterns or psychological reactions. One remains as much an individual as always.”

This insight is parallel to the segregated Negro who knew the same dismissal by the majority. “Surely one of the strangest experiences a person can have is suddenly

to step out into the streets and find that the entire white society is convinced that individual possesses qualities and characteristics which that person knows he does

not possess,” Griffin points out in A Time To Be Human. “I am not speaking here only of myself. This is the mind-twisting experience of every black person I know."

During the experiment recounted in Black Like Me, Griffin had listened to Negroes expressing inner thoughts and feelings without fear of reprisal, because he had been accepted into their community. What he was privileged to hear, no white person would have been trusted to hear. And what he learned was that “blackness was not a color but a lived experience.” Never abandoning self-criticism or slipping into egotism, Griffin transformed a limited scientific experiment into a dynamic ethical witness. Through a creative act of insight, Black Like Me transcended the societal perceptions of that era and opened a fresh vision for human rights.

In ten books, 140 essays and over 1200 lectures, Griffin constantly insisted that “I do not represent myself as a spokesman for black people or for anyone else.” A dozen years after publishing Black Like Me, exhausted by the grind of constant traveling and lecturing for nonviolence to solve race relations, he lamented that “I have had a life that I loathe these past years, but I have had to go in conscience and also because I am under spiritual direction…” Griffin’s “spiritual direction”—under the guidance of Catholic thinkers like Jacques Maritain and Thomas Merton—had been central since his conversion. Yet rarely is Black Like Me mentioned in spiritual or religious terms because he kept those vows private. Just as the experiment had tested the validity of his simple premise, it had tested his faith.

According to Robert Ellsberg, author of books on spiritual themes, “Griffin’s gesture was a radical effort at human empathy. Black Like Me is a profoundly radical book, and at the same time it is deeply spiritual. Its concern goes beyond a particular set of social/political/economic conditions to the underlying diseases of the soul….It is not only the burden of poverty, violence, and humiliation that blacks must bear; it is the terrible knowledge of the possibilities for evil in the human heart. What must such knowledge do to a person’s soul?”

Griffin had been exposed to such evils as a young medic in the underground resistance during the Nazi occupation of France. He and fellow students conveyed Jewish children (smuggled in Red Cross ambulances) to safety in England. When his name turned up on the Gestapo death list, he escaped to the United States. He joined the Army Air Corps and served three years in the Pacific theater. Twice wounded, he was shipped home, where doctors declared him legally blind. During sightlessness, he converted to Catholicism and married Elizabeth Ann Holland (1935-2000); they raised four children and shared 27 years together (until his death, at age 60, in 1980).

Griffin contemplated his own dying with the same honesty that clarified all his actions and works. He knew that physical pain and human suffering are as universal as racism, and stereotypical attitudes about suffering were part of the same cultural conditioning as the mythology of race. In fighting on both sides of the globe in war and experiencing both sides of the color line during the civil rights movement, he saw people “pass through the ultimate human tortures and emerge with everything burned out of them except a limitless capacity to love, which transformed them into luminous human beings.”

In direct relation to the double perspective developed in Black Like Me, he held the same sense of a double reality in the context of suffering and dying. The critical break from an enslavement to suffering begins with a moving away from self-interest and meaningless subjectivity toward an observing moment. This radical shift allows the sufferer “to be used as a sort of filter, to accept the experience imposed without even judging its value, allowing it to enter, allowing it to teach, and then letting it come back out in some sort of expression—prayer, silence, music, art, contemplation,” he writes in a 1969 essay. And one “may even learn an ultimate wisdom—not to care about results” but only to care about “submitting to the action and allowing results to take care of themselves, in the knowledge that if God does not allow suffering to evaporate uselessly, then that suffering is being used and how does not matter.”

Each person called to suffering must discover an inward path no cartographer has charted. “These effects—wisdom, giving, mercy, love—produce their own ferment.” And the sufferer “who has allowed these realities to come through the experience of suffering, in their own time and with their own priorities, knows that somehow and without any special action of his own initiative, that the ferment of these effects will be returned to the world in some form which is ultimately redemptive.”

The redemptive quality of suffering cannot be measured quantitatively just as faith cannot be proved by tangible results. Yet Griffin lived his adult years in the service of such ideals as justice, honesty, humility and peace. Even after years of suffering the ravages of diabetes and multiple heart attacks, he wrote in his final scribbled notebook that he was struggling to be “obedient, insofar as I can discern it, to the Holy Spirit, hanging on to love and some kind of innocence, trying to have enough presence of mind in the bad hours to go on saying yes and meaning it.”

About the Author

Born in New York City in 1942, Robert Bonazzi has also lived in Mexico City, San Francisco, Florida and several Texas cities. From 1966-2000, he edited and published over 100 titles under his Latitudes imprint. He lives in San Antonio and writes a column on poetry for the San Antonio Express-News and reviews for World Literature Today.

His major work on John Howard Griffin—Man in the Mirror: John Howard Griffin and the Story of Black Like Me (Orbis, 1997)—was praised by Jonathan Kozol, Studs Terkel, The Times of London, Chicago Tribune, Library Journal, National Catholic Reporter, Publishers Weekly, Booklist, The Catholic Worker, Texas Observer, Texas Books in Review and Multicultural Review.

As Executor for The Estate of John Howard Griffin, Bonazzi edited Griffin’s Black Like Me, Scattered Shadows: A Memoir of Blindness and Vision, Available Light: Exile in Mexico, Follow the Ecstasy: The Hermitage Years of Thomas Merton and Street of the Seven Angels.

His work on Griffin has appeared in The New York Times, Bloomsbury Review and The Historical Dictionary of Civil Rights. Bonazzi’s work has been published in over 200 publications—in France, Germany, Japan, South Korea, Canada, Mexico, Peru and the UK. He appears in the film documentary, Uncommon Vision: The Life and Times of John Howard Griffin (produced by Morgan Atkinson and aired on PBS).

He has published several volumes of poetry: The Scribbling Cure: Poems & Prose Poems (Pecan Grove, 2011) and Maestro of Solitude: Poems & Poetics (Wings, 2007) constitute a selected volume 1970-2010. Earlier books—Living the Borrowed Life (1974), Fictive Music: Prose Poems (1979) and Perpetual Texts (1986)


Penguin Group, 2010


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