Page 1


BOOKS & THE CULTURE Pioneering a Color-blind Society BY ROBERT BONAllI Black Like Me By John Howard Griffin Foreword to 40th anniversary edition By Studs Terkel Wings Press 244 pages, $24.95 Scattered Shadows: A Mem oir of Blindness and Vision By John Howard Griffin Orbis Books 230 pages, $10.95 1 n 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 Shamethe title of his 1960 series in Sepia magazinewas 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 nct 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 substanceis 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 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 The reasons it remained unpublished are complex, but the basic truth was that the focus of Griffin’s vision had shifted abruptly from being a solitary novelist in the 1950s to becoming a human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 manmisperceived as a stereotype and reduced to the inferior status of the Otherwho discovers a greater human ity 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 sightlessjust 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-aware 22 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 7/16 /04