Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Book Review of Black Like Me

I have recently joined a book club, and I chose the first book we read. I decided that as I read these books for my club, I'll post a review of them each month. If I get really ambitious, maybe I'll post some reviews of other books I'm reading too. Black Like Me is one of my favorite books, and I think it is so powerful. 

Black Like Me is a nonfiction memoir by John Howard Griffin. In the 1950s, Griffin decides that he does not really understand the "black problem," and as a white Southern gentleman, no one will really tell him the truth. The only way he can truly understand the situation is to darken his skin via medication and stains, then travel the South as a black man. The novel is a recounting of his experiences.

I find this novel fascinating on so many levels. First of all, I feel it is one that everyone can relate to because everyone has felt discriminated against, whether because of skin color, intelligence, sexual orientation, religion, gender, socioeconomic status, age, or a multitude of other divisions. I once had a student complain because as a WASP (white, Anglo-Saxon protestant), he was discriminated against in scholarships; there were scholarships available for every color/background under the sun...except his own. Although I completely understand the reason for this, I have also often wondered how we can consider ourselves a society of equality when true equality never exists.

I am fascinated by the psychological struggle Griffin goes through as a black man - something he never expected when he took on the project. As he spends more time as a black man and in the black world, he begins to think of himself as black.  That means the situation is "our problem," and he finds he cannot even smile or look at a white woman (his usual gentlemanly response) without being considered as making a pass at her. He sort of loses his own personality because he tries to do what is expected of someone like him. At one point he is mistaken for a porter and is surprised as he finds himself giving an oversized, grateful grin and thanking the woman profusely for her small tip. He realizes his actions are not congruent with his status as a successful businessman, but are a result of his situation and how he presently thinks and reacts. Near the end of the story, he starts to travel in the same areas as both black and white, and he finds completely different treatment by the same individuals. He also finds it difficult to revert back to his "white self" after experiencing life as a black man.

I also appreciate that Griffin is very fair to both sides of the issue. He readily admits that although he gets the "hate stare" from several white individuals, blacks have their own form of the hate stare reserved for whites. Although he recounts the cruel treatment received from some individuals, he is quick to admit that in certain areas the cruelty was not the norm for most people. He praises both black and white who try to remedy the problem, but also explains the approaches (both black and white) that do not help.

Griffin's human aspect also comes through clearly. There are a couple of times in the novel when he cannot withstand the situation and must escape. One time he goes to another city and tries again, another time he retreats to a monestary for a few days. In both situations, it reminds the reader how desperate the situation is for the oppressed, especially since they do not have the luxury of escape. After his experiment, several communities around the country call him in as an "expert" to help them remedy the situation in their areas. When possible, he rebukes them for not relying on local black leaders who know the culture, community, and condition so much better than an outsider ever could.

Black Like Me is a classic novel I feel every person should be familiar with. It is one I enjoy reading frequently and regularly. I do not believe that we can ever understand the Black/Asian/Hispanic/Middle Easter/Insert-any-other-word Experience unless we have lived it. However, I do believe that by educating ourselves as much as possible, we can understand that differences do exist, and that a person's experiences will define how he/she reacts in various situations. It is by recognizing, appreciating, and accepting those differences that true equality can someday be achieved. This novel illustrates how to recognize and accept those differences as eloquently as virtually any other I have read.