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The Face of Racism, Then and Now

When I first became aware of having a mind, three voices were speaking in it. One was world-weary Holden Caulfield. Another was hopeful Anne Frank. The third was John Howard Griffin.

You may not remember Griffin’s name, but if you were coming of age around the year 1960, you certainly saw his work. He wrote a seven-part series for Sepia magazine called “Journey Into Shame.” The series was syndicated in newspapers across the country and eventually published as a book called “Black Like Me.”

I don’t really remember reading newspapers before “Journey Into Shame” was published. I think I just looked at the cartoons and the advice columns, as my kids do now. But when I read the premise of the story in the Sunday supplement, I got hooked. A white man using pills, skin dyes and ultraviolet treatment had made his skin black. Changing nothing else about himself, he journeyed through Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama and reported on his experiences. That was during an era of drive-by lynchings.

It made for compelling reading. In the hands of a lesser writer, the whole thing might have been just a journalistic stunt. But like Holden and Anne, Griffin’s highly personal voice seemed to speak for all thoughtful people. John Howard Griffin woke many of us up to the injustice and violence in America. He made us ask: What can I do?

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For his efforts, Griffin was run out of the Texas town where he lived with his wife and young children by repeated threats of “castration.”

I recently decided to reread “Black Like Me.” Perhaps to remember a time when I believed racism would be conquered. Perhaps to feel nostalgic for a time when racism seemed to be a problem confined to the South--before I knew about Nazis in San Francisco, cross-burnings in suburbia and hate literature at our elite universities. Before the baseball bat became the weapon of choice in New York City.

Another motivation has been having those why-do- they- hate- us talks with my children. As my children become aware of black anger, they can’t understand what they have done to deserve it. Recently, one of my daughters described perfectly something I remembered from “Black Like Me.” It was a description of the “hate stare,” the hostile glaring look a stranger gives you based solely on race.

Griffin also knew that the hate stare worked both ways. Toward the end of “Black Like Me,” when his skin turned white again, he described walking down a street in a “Negro” section of Montgomery, and “I, the white man, got from the Negro the same shriveling treatment I, the Negro, had got from the white man. I thought, ‘Why me?’ ”

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After reading “Black Like Me” the first time, like the millions of others who read it, I vowed that the injustice would stop, that I would do something about it. Some things did change. But when you look at the black male death rate, the black infant mortality rate, the black-on-black crime rate, conditions of the underclass--it’s hard to feel that life has become more fair.

Today we seem bogged down in petty fights about semantics, about rap lyrics, about who is really a racist. We are divided by defensiveness. I wonder, if Griffin wrote his book today, if someone wouldn’t find some way to call him a “racist” for it.

I no longer think about what I can do to right the wrongs. I think more about how I’d better be oh, so careful of what I say and how I say it. I’d better not even write about race. Otherwise, I could spend the rest of my life writing columns about how I’m not white like them.


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