Many Americans of an older generation will remember reading Black Like Me, John Howard Griffin’s riveting account of his experiment in “becoming black” in the deep South during the late 1950s. Once required reading in high school and college classrooms, Griffin’s story today remains one of the most compelling yet strangely overlooked narratives of cross-racial solidarity during the Civil Rights era.
This semester I’m looking forward to reading the book with my freshmen students here at Xavier and viewing with them a recent outstanding documentary, “Uncommon Vision: The Life and Times of John Howard Griffin,” directed by independent filmmaker Morgan Atkinson. If you’ve never read the book or seen the film, both are unforgettable. Griffin’s remarkable biography reaches well beyond the Black Like Me experiment to include transporting Jews through Paris during the German occupation, a ten year period of blindness and miraculous recovery, a deep love of music, and a close friendship with Thomas Merton. In short, his life story will burn itself indelibly into your consciousness.
Griffin’s life can throw fresh light into dark places, helping us to navigate difficult but crucial questions exposed by recent events in Ferguson and well beyond, in our own cities and neighborhoods. Are we really capable of empathy for those who live and struggle just outside our comfort zones? And what accounts for our stubborn resistance to solidarity, especially when it comes to building relationships of friendship and understanding across the color line?
Griffin’s book went beyond social observation to examine an underlying disease of the soul. It was really a meditation on the effects of dehumanization, both for the persecuted and the persecutors themselves. When his story was published his body was hung in effigy in his hometown in Texas. Nevertheless he threw himself into a decade of tireless work on behalf of the civil rights movement, persevering with those who shared “the harsh and terrible understanding that somehow they must pit the quality of their love against the quantity of hate roaming the world.”
Griffin died on September 8, 1980. May we hold his memory close this day with gratitude to God, and keep his story–which is also our story–alive and burning in the hearts of our next generation.