Lately I have been rereading Black Like Me, John Howard Griffin’s unforgettable account of his 1959 experiment in “becoming black.” On the first page, in a few jarringly direct lines, Griffin explains why he decides to disguise himself as a black man and descend into the Deep South:
How else except by becoming a Negro could a white man hope to learn the truth? The southern Negro will not tell the white man the truth. He long ago learned that if he speaks a truth unpleasing to the white, the white would make life miserable for him. The only way I could see to bridge the gap between us was to become a Negro. I decided I would do this.
Griffin, like me, was a Catholic writer, and lifelong student of music. At age 39, he had a wife and kids, a job, a career. He had a lot to lose. Yet, incalculably more than me, his desire to “bridge the gap” between himself and the reality of “being black” in America transcended his fears about the extreme physical and emotional costs of his experiment in solidarity.
Of course, as a white man, he had an escape route. Nevertheless for six weeks he went all in, body, mind, and spirit, radically surrendering his own skin privilege and power in solidarity with his black brothers and sisters. More than anything he desired, as much as possible in his circumstances, to level the playing field, so as to taste something of a reality and truth “beyond Otherness,” as he later wrote of the experience.
One of my students recently wrote as follows about a scene in Black Like Me that seems to have burned itself into her consciousness:
At one point in the book Griffin splits candy bars among a black family he is staying with for the night. One of the children was salivating so much from the chocolate that her mother unconsciously wiped the saliva off with her finger and put it in her own mouth. As the family went to bed, they closely embraced each other to escape the dark cold night that often welcomed mosquitoes. This love and sense of family holds no racial boundary. Race literally is the surface of one’s true being. Griffin found God that night while sleeping on the floor. He was black, but most importantly, he was human.
I think my student gets it exactly right. By drawing near and not pulling away, by breaking through the race veil bodily, intellectually, emotionally, Griffin became more human. By becoming more open, more vulnerable, more radically present to the other, Griffin “found God that night while sleeping on the floor.”
The cynic might counter that Griffin’s experiment failed before it even started. No white man, being white, can truly know or experience at the deepest emotional level what it is to “be black” in America. Race is more than “the surface” of one’s true being. By virtue of race we are, if for historical and cultural factors beyond our control, essentially closed off from one another. No appeal to God or earnest conviction of faith—such as the belief that every person shares in and reflects sacramentally the image of God—can remove the race veil. To the cynic or even the theological realist, for whom everything is sifted through the lens of social power and privilege, because Griffin is white, his perception of black experience could only be “apparent.” It was not real. And therefore, when push comes to shove, his account is not really trustworthy.
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. . . . I was experiencing all this as a human parent and it was exactly as I experienced my own children.
A few years ago, we invited Griffin’s daughter, Suzy Griffin Campbell, to speak at Xavier University. When one of our students asked her why she thought her father did what he did, after a short pause, she replied, “I think he did it for the children.” She didn’t specify whose children. He did it for the children. He did it for all children.
Rediscovering Child Mind
As I write these lines, I’m sitting on metal bleachers in a large gym watching my six year old son Henry banging around the basketball court with two dozen or so other kids. Sitting all around me are working class fathers and mothers of all races, all of us watching, laughing, and frequently cringing at the loosely organized chaos before us, an unbridled energy swirling this moment around a loose ball at mid-court. Henry, who has just tackled another kid half his size, is Haitian born and as deep chocolate-hued as a Junior Mint. I am Irish and a shade paler than Casper the Ghost. I expect we might look a little curious to some of the other families here, who are predominantly African American. But never once have I felt out of place.
The realization with Griffin that at the deepest emotional level “there is no Other—that the Other is simply Oneself in all the significant essentials,” has been for me a struggle and journey of a lifetime. But it comes to me palpably in this moment as I watch Henry mixing it up with the other kids, and above all, as I recognize my own delight and joy reflected in the faces of the other parents around me, mothers and fathers of every racial and socioeconomic background.
(The cynic counters: Be quiet. You don’t really know what you’re talking about. The political-theological realist in me whispers: Careful you don’t project your mystical-transcendental-idealist view of reality onto others!)
Everyone who walks through the doors of the “Friars Club” – this venerable Franciscan mission dedicated to serving poor kids in Cincinnati through athletic programs for 155 years – commits themselves with their children to practice in one another’s presence the following four values: respect, responsibility, leadership, and good sportsmanship. The Friars Club works because, not unlike the basic “rules of engagement” we all learn in kindergarten, these values beckon every parent, coach, and child who walks through its doors not to play the cynic, which is to say, we will treat every person, no matter their racial, ethnic or economic background, as immeasurably valuable and worthy of dignity. We will treat one another, in a word, as children of God.
Much of the transformation that happens in this gym, I expect, happens in the adults, as we watch and learn from our children what is possible when kids of all sorts come together, are taught as one body with loving discipline, and then are set free with a happy blast into the beautiful rough and tumble of shared learning and play. Like Jesus’ image of the heavenly banquet table, where the host sends his servants out to the highways and byways to gather the guests, our children in such moments are moving pictures in black and white of what is possible when we cross the color line in society and church and put our shoulders to a common task.
I am not so naïve to presume that racism has never in 155 years manifested its toxic presence within the Friars Club, between children, parents, and coaches or the Franciscan priests and brothers who sponsor and run the place. Yet on this night, and from the first night I walked through these doors, I feel gloriously free of it.
Many are saying that the challenges facing African American children today are, on the whole, empirically worse than they were in the 1950s and 1960s. This is not at all hard for me to believe in my own deeply segregated city of Cincinnati, where the poverty rate among black children is second only to that of Detroit. Short of “becoming black” in the radical manner of Griffin, how can I—how can we all—become more human in the midst of these sobering realities?
In the way that Griffin observes the intimacy of a mother wiping chocolate from her hungry child’s lips, in the way he gathers all of it into himself as he surrenders to sleep on an impoverished but welcoming family’s floor—embracing the strangeness, the danger, the beauty, the vulnerability—there are critical moments of decision in all our lives, perhaps in each day, when we are invited by the mystery and beauty of life itself not to play the cynic.
Griffin’s witness encourages me precisely as an intellectual to listen to my own childlike heart and to place my trust in its most intimate experiences of curiosity and discovery–not least, at this moment, the unfathomable graces and anxieties of being Henry’s father, in spaces both public and private where the veil of race cannot diminish or negate the love that passes between us, no matter what the “real world” (or academic race discourse) throws at us. I pray my love will imbue in Henry my own refusal to let the race veil pass between us, which is at once the surrender of intellect and heart to an elemental faith in the goodness of people on all sides of the color line, yes, even in this our deeply broken, segregated, and white supremacist society.
“I will not break faith with my awakened heart.” To embrace the realization that, “in my most childlike hour, my heart has not deceived me.” (1) The possibility of communion across the color line—not uniformity, but unity in difference—is real, it is beautiful, and it is trustworthy.
Of course there are no guarantees this surrender will not make me look the fool. I have no doubt that the world will sow seeds of doubt in Henry and perhaps even in me as he grows into his freedom and social awareness as a human being, as a young man who bears the complex burdens of blackness in America. The circle of his parents’ love, even the long reach of our white privilege, cannot protect him forever. And still, in the circle of my love he will always be my child, my Henry David, my “beloved ruler of the household.”
Words Made Flesh
From this daily decision for love and childlike wonder—the Buddhists call it Beginner’s Mind, which is patently not the same as childish ignorance or willful naïveté—it seems to me that one of the greatest challenges facing race discourse today is the need for new images and new language-worlds to help us move through and transform the essentializing polarities of whiteness/blackness, enemy/friend, us/them, oppressor/victim, so that we might more readily and courageously inhabit these spaces of graced encounter, shared labor, and communion in solidarity with the stranger.
“The limitations of my language,” writes theologian Dorothee Solle, “are the limitations of my world. The wealth of my language is the wealth which I can experience.” Like the first principles guiding the Friars Club, the words we use are much more, really, than mere signposts or juridical “rules of engagement.” The image and language worlds we choose to inhabit open spaces for imagining and making real other possible life-worlds, ways of being patterned in flesh and freedom that are more worthy and welcoming of our common humanity. Or they don’t. It seems to me that wherever our speech is framed inextricably by the dynamics of power and hierarchies of privilege—who has it, who doesn’t—our words will tend not to open up life-worlds but to close them prematurely, mercilessly, and ever more tightly around “our kind.”
What results from left to right, from black to white, from the ivory tower to the corner barber shop, is the banality and relentless circularity of talk radio, the self-reflexive echo chamber. The problem with painting all our impassioned speech in black and white is that it risks creating an environment from first principles (i.e., a life-world) in which no real exchange or mutual dialogue and learning is likely to happen because the script has been set ahead of time. And wherever no real exchange or learning or mutual discovery is going on, we soon find ourselves with nothing really new or meaningful to say. (2) Wherever the risk and vulnerability of mutual encounter and discovery is ruled out by word or implication in advance, what remains but defensive/penitent hand-wringing about Us or pitched monologues about Them, nameless and disembodied “Others”–and, of course, the implicit question, Whose side are you on? Here is the banality of grown-up (and frequently childish) political speech that, for all the appeal and implicit satisfaction of prophetic truth speaking to power, risks bearing us nowhere new, or, in any case, nowhere new together.
The combined impact of critical race theory, historical analysis, and reams upon reams of sociological data that demonstrate the terrible reach and enduring evils of white supremacy can initiate the urgent and necessary intellectual conversion in whites of good will and social-justice oriented faith. Much of my own work as a scholar and teacher bends in this direction. It cannot, I think, spark the emotional connections and personal transformation to which Griffin’s story gives such cogent witness, and which my own graced encounters across the color line across many decades, encounters at once disruptive, unsettling, and beautiful, confirm.
To be clear, I do not mean to neutralize or dismiss the truth-force of terms such as “White Supremacy” or “Black Lives Matter.” Yet to the degree I remain fixated on my whiteness and you on your blackness, both of us are finally left turning, it seems to me, in solipsistic bubbles, seeing but never really seeing past our own reflections, bound eventually to suffocate from incremental boredom or self-enclosed despair. What could be more satisfying in the short term and more dreadful over the long-term than talking about ourselves?
I am acutely aware that the contemplative praxis and speech I advocate here in no way solves the immediate dilemma for the threatened and vulnerable self, stripped of agency and social power. (Sandra Bland, for example, or Eric Garner.) Yet the commitment to nonviolent social resistance as a larger religious-philosophical-political movement seems to me to depend on a vision and language of kinship and common humanity, that is, a theological anthropology, that distinguishes differences (race, gender, culture) not in order to separate human beings into disparate camps but ultimately to unite us: thus M. Shawn Copeland’s appeal to the Mystical Body of Christ; King’s Beloved Community; Gandhi’s law of Love as truth-force (satyagraha) and deepest law of human being; Buddhism’s intuition of Nondualism or Interbeing. To surrender such a vision and religious-experiential grasp of reality seems to me to give away too much, the root of our hope as a human community and people of faith.
Life is too short to play in small, centripetal circles. The urgent task at hand, it seems to me, is to invite and cajole “whites like me” outside our habitual comfort zones into the spaces where black meets white and yields a whole lot of beautiful gray. I do not suggest that Griffin’s dramatic witness or the seemingly mundane miracle of kids playing basketball together at the Friars Club offer anything like clear “solutions” to the crisis of segregation and racial injustice in America. I do suggest they offer concrete, humble, and beautifully humane responses to our collective blindness, signposts that are more than mere signposts. They open fields of imagination and hope, incarnate pathways worthy of our emulation. And for that I am grateful. (3)
1. The phrase is borrowed from James Finley, “Thomas Merton: Mystic Teacher for Our Age,” plenary address for the International Thomas Merton Society, Louisville, KY, June 2015. Publication forthcoming in The Merton Annual 28 (2015).
2. It is Merton and more recently Rowan Williams to whom I am most indebted here. Williams’ analysis of the “crisis of language” in Merton’s era illumines powerfully if starkly the analogous crisis of communication in our own. Where language is employed solely in ways that have to do with power, conflict, or hierarchies of advantage—whether maintaining them or seeking to dismantle them—the environment created on all sides “is one of a final, deadening banality.” The “self” or social body that builds its core identity on power—whether drunk with it or grasping for its just and rightful share—will eventually perish in self-absorbed toxicity. Howard Thurman registered the same caution sixty years ago. The stranger, not least the bitter enemy, comes to us as Gift–and, to be sure, as Cross to bear–insofar as she, and perhaps she alone, can pierce the self-reflexive bubble. [See Rowan Williams, “Words, War, and Silence: Thomas Merton for the Twenty-first Century,” forthcoming in The Merton Annual 28 (2015); on Thurman in conversation with M. Shawn Copeland, see C. Pramuk, Hope Sings, So Beautiful, 17-32.]
UPDATE [10/23/15]: For more on Merton, race, and the dangers of “essentializing” frameworks of thought and speech, link here to my panel presentation of May 2015, at the Festival of Faiths in Louisville.
(3) I am also grateful to John Slattery, who kindly read this post in draft form, offering a host of fruitful critical questions, encouragements, and a final benevolent warning that I was opening “a huge can of worms.” The post has been brewing in me for some time, but is offered in a spirit of invitation and communal dialogue. It is, in the root sense of “essay,” an attempt, a venture, an experiment in theology as life and as faith seeking understanding.