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Black Like Me

John Howard Griffin—a most extraordinary fellow, a one-man-band of virtue and a virtuoso, who was, quite literally among other things, and at all of these first rate—a novelist, essayist, musicologist, theologian, expert in animal husbandry, public speaker, propagandist and journalist-saint of the white man’s struggle in the black cause. Griffin was also a faith healer of himself, as the man had had so many physical things wrong with him, among them blindness and tumors from head to toe, yet he kept working twenty hours a day. He must have ranked as the eighth medical wonder of the world—a cautious ranking on my part as I forget the first seven.“When I was a Negro…” John was always saying, because he was one, for almost a year, a white man who took drugs and dyes and baked himself under ultraviolet lamps to turn himself into a black man, so he could walk the streets in the South and experience what it does to a man’s soul to be black in this society. He wrote about it in a book called ‘Black Like Me.’ The desperate, sensational attempt of one white man to convey to other whites the reality of racism. What he didn’t write in the book was that the drugs he took to blacken his skin were to cause him severe pain and Jobian medical complications for years after—accelerating the growth of tumors, fortunately nonmalignant but painful and dreadful, which were yet another cross on top of a Calvary of medical problems, most resulting from his being shot to pieces in the Pacific in World War II. 

Griffin took all of this pain in silence; he was constantly on the go, driven by the vision he had during the 11 years of his life when he was totally blind, of a holocaust that was coming because of the madness and evil of racism. He was a determined Texan, out to make the world understand before it was too late, always driving himself too hard, as if he were performing the collective penance for the sins of the white race against the black, as if the very devil was chasing after him to do good.

Blind or sighted, Griffin worked on like a metronome. He was always trying to save somebody, himself last. A medical student in France on the eve of the Second World War, he spent two years working with the French Resistance smuggling Jews out of Germany and Austria. Griffin was lucky ducking German bullets, but later in the war, serving in the Air Force in the Pacific, he wasn’t so lucky. He was mustered out with 5% of his sight remaining, the residue of head wounds. By 1947 he was completely blind, and remained so until his sight was partially restored a decade later after multiple operations. Some critics, whose cynicism is such they could not believe a man as straight and sincere as John Griffin could exist on this earth, and who therefore carped at ‘Black Like Me’ as some sort of gimmick, were to comment that the near-blind Griffin wore dark glasses because he wanted to be thought a movie star.

During his ten years in the dark, John studied music with the Benedictines in France and Thomistic philosophy with the Discalced Carmelites in America, settling in his native Texas where he took up animal husbandry, married, fathered three children, wrote two novels and an anthology of essays and journalism. Hardly a year after his sight was partly restored he went off to find a cooperative dermatologist to darken his skin; once he could see again, he wanted to see what it was like to be black.

If there is something wrong with Griffin it is that he is a goddamn saint, an insufferable Christian, a soft-spoken, gentle guy who never seems to think ill of anyone; he even prayed for those friends and neighbors who burnt him in effigy on the main street of his home town of Mansfield, Texas, when the word reached the local pool hall that he had gone and turned himself into a nigger.

Interestingly, for all his personal softness, Griffin’s novels have a magnificent sense of evil; his books, which fairly exude brimstone, are as out of print as they are out of favor in some fashionable circles. (A short story of Griffin’s was once printed in a creative writing “textbook”; he read the usual textbook-type questions at the end of the story such as “What does the author mean by this scene?” and said he couldn’t answer a single one of them.)

The civil rights movement was one big integrationist Elks Club to John Griffin. He was constantly traveling about the country, speaking, wearing himself hoarse warning about what was coming in those too-short days before Watts and Detroit. He knew everyone who had so much as lifted a pinky against Jim Crow, and Ramparts magazine made the acquaintance of them all—white Southerners who had long fought the good fight, such as John Henry Falk, the radio personality lost in the static of the 50s blacklists, and the late P. D. East, the integrationist editor of the Petal Paper of Mississippi; and, more in tune with our growing itch to get out of the frying pan of the Church and into the fire below, and blacks who knew where the action was, such as Dick Gregory.

John Griffin, convert to Catholicism who bled for the pain of black men, later gradually displaced, by sheer moral weight, those other High Church converts who once bent Keating’s ear, as publisher of Ramparts magazine.

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