ness” 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 identifyingalthough not actually becominga 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 encounterwhen he stares into the mirror for the first timewe are startled into a painful awareness by his initial response of antipathy. The sudden shock of this “strangera 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 deniedhis 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 reactionthat he wrote of it with full disclosure and spoke about it for years during his lecture toursmeans 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:’ Butas 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.” continued on page 31 From The Observer Files fter he had completed his trip and began publishing articles about it, Griffin was hanged in effigy on the main street of Mansfield [Texas, Griffin’s hometown], a cross was burned on the hill above his home, and his family received threatening phone calls. The South in general responded differently. “I have received one abusive letter to 100 favorable ones,” he said. “My mail has been about fifty-fifty white and Negro. About 50 per cent from the South. Many of the favorable letters were from Southern whites!’ A record of Griffin’s experiences, Black Like Me, \(the title is from a poem by Langston Hughes: “Night coming published by Doubleday. He says a work of fiction is “inevitable. The experience was so traumatic.” Before beginning his trip, Griffin gave a novena, a nine-day period of prayer, that he “might have the strength to endure the muck” he expected from Negroes, reasoning that the constant indignities they are subjected to would cause them to turn on each other. Instead he found “only the most exquisite courtesies.” As an example of these courtesies, Griffin mentioned a Negro youth who walked with him an unexpected four miles when asked the direction to a colored movie; then offered to walk back with him after the show. “I like to talk to you,” he explained. “That was only one of many, many instances;’ Griffin said. Undoubtedly the courtesies were part of a natural pattern. They must also have been a response to an extraordinary man. John Howard Griffin was not “The Negro,” or “a” Negro. He took the retinas of a man who has been blind and the sensitivity of a poet through one of the harshest of human experiences. Bertrice Bartlett and Dwain Manske, from The Texas Observer, July 1, 1960 7/16/04 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 23
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