Pioneering a Color-Blind Society

Scattered Shadows: A Memoir of Blindness and Vision

In the autumn of 1959, novelist John Howard Griffin made the simple experiment of darkening his skin to disguise himself as a black man, while traveling for six weeks through the racially segregated South. Griffin’s Journey Into Shame—the title of his 1960 series in Sepia magazine—was taken five years after the Supreme Court’s ruling in Brown v. Board of Education and five years before the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The journal he kept during this time was published as Black Like Me in 1961.

After the controversial book first appeared, Griffin was asked the same question over and over: Why had he done such a thing? His easy answer was that he didn’t want his children to become white racists. He also made the point that blacks never asked him that question. But it was not the real answer, which could only be articulated by the path that his life of 39 years had taken to that point. The most crucial experience had been the influence of an equally unique “experiment”—he had been injured during a bombing raid in World War II, had lived with physical blindness for a decade but unexpectedly recovered his eyesight in 1957.

In Griffin’s memoir about this period, Scattered Shadows, he sums it up this way: “For the blind man, the whole issue of segregation on the basis of inferiority according to color or race is solved axiomatically. He can see only the heart and intelligence of a man, and nothing in these things indicates the slightest whether the man is white or black, but only whether he is good or bad, wise or foolish. This indicates the enormous superficiality of segregationist judgments which are based on mere physical sight rather than perception. Is not this 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, under contract with the same Boston firm that published Black Like Me, did not appear as a book in Griffin’s lifetime (1920-1980), although selections saw print during the 1950s and 1960s. The reasons it remained unpublished are complex, but the basic truth was that the focus of Griffin’s vision had shifted abruptly from being a solitary novelist in the 1950s to becoming a human rights activist on the lecture circuit during the 1960s and early 1970s.

Black Like Me became a bestseller in the United States, England, and France, and has sold over 11 million copies in 14 languages to date. Scattered Shadows has suffered the opposite fate, but their thematic parallels are striking and profound. In the modern classic on racism, a white Texan makes a journey through the Old South and returns to the middle class world of privilege after six weeks. In the lesser-known story a soldier injured by forces beyond his control loses eyesight, becomes a serious novelist, and regains eyesight a decade later.

Both stories concern the same man—misperceived as a stereotype and reduced to the inferior status of the Other—who discovers a greater humanity in Otherness. Griffin realized that blindness was judged by the sighted to be a tragic handicap, an intrinsically different condition which had no relation to the essence of the sightless—just as whites prejudged black people as intrinsically Other based entirely on skin color, bearing no resemblance to their qualities as human individuals.

These texts of Otherness evoke realities beyond the awareness of the dominant culture: Black Like Me reveals the experience of a segregated minority as whites refused to believe it; Scattered Shadows illuminates the interior world of darkness as the sighted could not perceive it.

A second theme connecting the two memoirs is Griffin’s sense of immersing himself in something greater than self, rather than to immerse that reality within self, distorting its intrinsic shape to fit one’s preconceptions and prejudices. In art this flaw would be the humility of the creative process falsified by one’s pride in self-expression. In the spiritual realm, it would be reducing an ideal to satisfy self instead of dissolving ego to serve an ideal.

In Scattered Shadows, Griffin discusses this in a Prologue, recounting a 1938 trip as a student in Tours, France, to attend an opera in Paris. Realizing he could not afford the ticket and a room for the night, he decides to make the trip anyway. After the opera performance, with no place to sleep but on a stone floor under an ancient stairway, he becomes totally immersed in his misery. But slowly he detaches from it, intuiting a fresh perspective beyond self-interest. “All things took on new values,” he writes, understanding that the moment and the place itself began “giving up its secrets” and, therefore, “instead of immersing it in myself, I was immersing myself in it.”

This attitude of “selfless self-awareness” that Griffin contemplated from this early teenage event throughout life, was deeply imprinted during blindness. If he had not made adapting to sightlessness his goal by developing the other senses to the highest degree possible and by overcoming the so-called limitations that the sighted world imposed, he would have become the object of his own pity. By shifting his attention toward fascinations with writing fiction and a spiritual conversion from agnosticism to Catholicism, he had not denied life itself and become mired in despair and self-defeat.

By a radical change of color in Black Like Me, Griffin encountered a complex reality unknown to him or to white readers. He had no choice but to live immersed in his new reality and, like Scattered Shadows in relation to blindness, Black Like Me immerses readers in identifying—although not actually becoming—a black man in the Deep South. “My deepest shock,” he wrote later, “came with the gradual realization that this was not a matter of inconvenience “but rather a total change in living.”

Through the immediacy of first-person narration, readers experience these changes at the street level. We do not know what the consequences will be or what the adjustments to being judged as an anonymous Other rather than as a human individual will demand. Readers also share in his secret identity and know Griffin’s subtle internal shifts in perception, attitude, and conscience. The narrator becomes an instrument immersed in the existential moment, and we are drawn into this vortex of emotions and sensations. We view scenes in vivid detail, smell fear, taste dread, hear precise tones in the dialogue and his interior monologue, and feel a trickle of sweat under the hot rays of the sun lamp.

Reaching the first critical encounter—when he stares into the mirror for the first time—we are startled into a painful awareness by his initial response of antipathy. The sudden shock of this “stranger—a fierce, bald, very dark Negro” who glares at him, signals a unique double perspective, yet at first he feels split in half. “I became two men, the observing one and the one who panicked,” he writes, clinging to his inner white identity as it’s slowly disappearing. In that instant he rejects the darker skin of the Other—the unknown Negro he appears to have become, because “I did not like the way he looked.”

At first, Griffin had attempted to rationalize this gut reaction of negation to the Other as his shock at the image in the mirror that was not merely a disguise but a totally unexpected transformation. But he was too honest not to know that he had come face-to-face with his own racism and that this primal reaction had illuminated a crucial blind spot long denied—his unconscious sense of white supremacy.

And it is this naked truthfulness that I have always believed to be Griffin’s deepest courageous act in Black Like Me, rather than the fact that he made the experiment in the first place, which is what most readers and reviewers point out. That he admitted to the shame and embarrassment of his own racist reaction—that he wrote of it with full disclosure and spoke about it for years during his lecture tours—means more than anything, because our denial of white racism toward people of color perpetuates irrational fear and hatred in contemporary social life.

Looking back on that pivotal scene, Griffin “realized at that moment that although I had intellectually liberated myself from all prejudices, they were still deeply ingrained at the emotional level.”

But—as he states in “Beyond Otherness” in 1979—”Having recognized the depths of my own prejudices, when I first saw my black face in the mirror, I was grateful to discover that within a week as a black man the old wounds were healed and all the emotional prejudice was gone. It had disappeared for the simple reason that I was staying in the homes of black families and I was experiencing at the emotional level, for the first time in thirty-nine years, what I had known intellectually for a long time. I was seeing that in families everything is the same for all people.”

Black Like Me and Scattered Shadows are somewhat naked memoirs entirely immersed in realities larger than their narrator, although Griffin was the filtering instrument for those autobiographical visions. Both memoirs are drawn from his Journals (1950-1980) but went through many rewrites. He kept journals “because it puts on paper what would enter into the realm of forgetfulness, and I am thrifty enough to know that I can come back to these, and in these thousands of pages find something that I could never produce later—find some thought, some expression, some reaction that lives and breathes.”

He thought André Gide’s journals “too carefully written for effect,” but discovered in Franz Kafka’s diaries a truthfulness that was “total reality and therefore total inconsistency.” The journal became his natural literary form, first since it was the only way he knew how to write in the beginning while blind, but thereafter because he mastered the form in his first two novels, The Devil Rides Outside (1952) and Nuni (1956).

Griffin was called a “Renaissance Man” by those impressed with his talents, achievements and humanitarian efforts. But the term obscures a deeper spiritual orientation, grounded in the Medieval Ideal of obedience and humility. The Renaissance was the invention of the Ego in the West, focusing on the secular, historical time, progress—exactly the opposite of Griffin’s focus on the spiritual, eternity, and process, while cultivating a selfless self-awareness. His radical incarnation in Black Like Me, links him to contemporary issues, because these evils persisted during his brief lifetime (1920-1980) as they persist today. Griffin’s humane critiques of society, like those of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., were based on peaceful nonviolence and the sacredness of life.

But also like Gandhi and King, John Howard Griffin was a thinker, a man of philosophical depths, as well as spiritual heights. In 1960 he wrote: “Take the teaching of logic out of civilization and reason is reduced to the squalor of prejudice. All of the classic fallacies of logic then become a sort of weird virtue and man seeks by loudness, fear and violence to win causes that could not be won by rational persuasion.”

Griffin was speaking of the segregationist, “who uses noise, religion, bombast and diversionary considerations to cloud an issue that would be seen as absurd if stripped of these trappings. His credo would seem to be: If the truth makes you uncomfortable, don’t change yourself but simply alter truth to conform to your comfort.”

Does this sound familiar today? Black Like Me continues to be read and to be controversial to some—because truthfulness always is.

Robert Bonazzi is the author of Man in the Mirror: John Howard Griffin and the Story of Black Like Me (Orbis Books, 1997). He lives in San Antonio.

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Published at 12:00 am CST