Fifty Years with Black Like Me

By Dan Robertson

Like John Howard Griffin, I grew up Houston, Texas in the segregated South, and was influenced by segregated institutions and the attitudes that surrounded and supported them. In my case, this meant primarily the public schools I attended and the public accommodations I encountered every day. The courthouse had smaller “colored” restrooms, and Negroes were expected to confine themselves to the back of the pre-Birmingham buses. The ugly duality of treatment of blacks was evident, but somehow the boyhood shock of Emmett Till’s fate seemed far away from home. As a twelve year old I could not comprehend how a young man could be murdered for looking at a white woman and yet I was riding the segregated buses every week.

Despite the reigning mores derived from segregation and the support they enjoyed, the vitality and energy of our city was, in many respects strongly related to its African American population, culture and institutions. Roberto Bonazzi and I listened to the black radio stations, KYOK and KCOH, were steeped in the blues and jazz, frequented jazz clubs and record stores in the black community, and lived in close proximity to black neighborhoods despite attending separate schools. Because of our residential proximity, our neighborhood sandlot football games were often, “black vs. white,” with little overt hostility, but a heightened state of competition. Basketball, on the other hand, was always played with “mixed teams,” no doubt to ensure that maximum competitiveness of the games. This background and our modest involvement in civil rights activism provided the context for our reading of Black Like Me which exposed the shameful duality we were living with, and spurred our modest civil rights activism in the early sixties. I had instituted walking paper routes in the black community in Amarillo where black news paper carriers had never been employed and lead a church youth group in cross town exchanges with black church youth. When Bonazzi wrote Griffin, the author of Black Like Me, requesting an interview, I was thrilled to join in and traveled from Amarillo to meet join him in this venture which was to be of unforgettable magnitude and influence.

That interview was one of those seminal experiences that so profoundly impact one’s life that it is difficult to recreate the sense of naiveté and wonder of that day. Like Bonazzi, I remain struck by the visual details, particularly by the display of human intelligence found on the portraits that surrounded the room. Griffin’s overwhelming graciousness and strong but gentle demeanor were juxtaposed with his astonishing life story from Ft. Worth to France, the days of his impending blindness, his studies at Solesmes, wartime exploits, blindness and the mysterious recovery of his sight and subsequent success as a writer. All of this presented a saga almost too overarching to comprehend. That day the recognition of the Tsunami of this man’s life, interests and accomplishments very quickly overwhelmed the worthy but limited confines of the interview we had contemplated. I felt as though I had tumbled through the looking glass from a very local/regional focus on race relations taking place in a Horton Foote[i] like small town Texas venue into a virtually un-chartable sea of universality. The universal aspect of racism had been evident in our reading of Black Like Me (BLM), but Roberto and I were both affected and limited by our own perspective and experiences of race, and race relations which were acquired in the American South in Houston, Texas.

In addition to Griffin and his wife’s gracious reception of us, I remember taking away three profound impressions from that initial meeting with Griffin. The first was that he was essentially an artist operating on a very high plane of interest and achievement. Unlike Griffin, I was no musicologist, so I was dying to read his novels and was fascinated with the idea that the Beethoven 131 Quartet could somehow provide the structure of a work of fiction. Secondly, I could see that his art was his vocation and that the civil rights lecturing, crisis intervention and other related work, was of secondary importance to him, though clearly important. I also saw and appreciated that he was pursuing the public aspect of that civil rights work at some cost to both his health and his vocation. This awareness underscored that the pursuit was coming from conscience, and as he said, “under spiritual direction.” He felt a strong duty to help in easing racial tensions when called upon, despite the personal cost to his health and literary work. Finally and perhaps most profoundly, I saw that racism was a universal problem and sickness far beyond the limited north/south black/white regional formulation that I had arrived with at the outset of the interview. That crystal clear awareness has been with me everyday of my life since then. Griffin had made that point forcefully, with parables from his various lectures and experiences lecturing about racism and from his post Black Like Me experiences all over the world.

We were to return to see the Griffins many times over the years. Their openness to us, his friendship and his enthusiasm for so many things were celebrated in these visits which were a fruitful combination of the best of Texas openness, inclusion and fluidity, and French graciousness, charm and intellect. Griffin would be actively presiding at gatherings which included family, friends from far and near, creative artists, food, wine, and always music. On one of these early follow up visits following the interview, I recall having to ask him to clarify an undecipherable (to me) reference to Mere Poulard from the interview transcript. With no hint of superiority or alarm at my ignorance, he enlightened me on the celebrated namesake omelet and appeared on the brink of making a facsimile to seal my feeble understanding.

Bonazzi and I eventually went along different paths with our Griffin-related understandings, he to writing, publishing and literature, and I to graduate school and school desegregation, but we were both irrevocably changed by our encounter with Griffin and his work. Fortunately, for us and for the world in general, Bonazzi’s path took him into a deeper dialogue, relationship with and understanding of Griffin and his works, both published and unpublished. Bonazzi’s 15-year dialogue with Griffin, his 178 letter correspondence and his immersion in his writing and personal journals provide a unique and comprehensive viewpoint on Griffin and his significance. Those experiences form the basis for Bonazzi’s Man in the Mirror John Howard Griffin and the Story of Black Like Me.

The very best way to celebrate the 50th year anniversary of BLM is to reread the book itself. As the anniversary year kicked off, I was amused/bemused by those commentators who chose to reify the project and to speculate on what would happen if the project were replicated today in our so called “post-racial” environment. This approach completely misses the mark. BLM derives its stature, not from the novelty of the project, but from Griffin himself, his honesty, humanity, and clarity and from his narrative style.

Man in the Mirror provides a good deal of background information on what shaped Griffin’s interest and undertaking of his project. Reading Man in the Mirror is illuminating and essential to a full appreciation of BLM because it does a number of important things. It provides some biographical background to help one understand who the author was that set out on this scary quest in 1959. Next it provides something rarely seen today, a reading of the work itself and finally it provides information about the aftermath, what radio commentator, Paul Harvey reveled in calling “the rest of the story.”

Bonazzi has employed his superior access and formidable knowledge of Griffin’s work to provide some surprising and fascinating revelations. When I first read his book my academic mind began to stack up Griffin’s prior experiences assuming that they coalesced into the understanding about race and racism in a way that naturally informed his project and his awareness. I tallied up his (1) early Lycee experiences with blacks on a more even plane that his Southern upbringing allowed, (2) the French Resistance activities, (3) the cultural superiority issue encountered in the Solomon Island assignment and finally (4) his experience as a blind man. It makes a perfect progression, but it is wrong. Bonazzi points out that Griffin did not make these connections himself. Griffin reported, “[I] …heard the Nazi’s say the same things about Jewish people that I had grown up hearing about black people, but I did not recognize the similarities.” Though Griffin had learned much about the evils of racism in the French resistance, He did not see the parallels to white racism in America. Griffin would not become aware of them until after the Black Like Me experiment.

True to its title, Man in the Mirror correctly and profoundly hones in on Griffin’s initial confrontation with the black stranger he found starring back at him in the mirror before embarking on his journey. Griffin was hoping to document that the mere presence of a black skin color would cause whites to overlook all the qualities of the person, John Howard Griffin, and treat him with less than was his due as a human being. He had some awareness of the potential issue of impact on his own identity and had fears that his family might not recognize him, assuming he succeed in “passing” for a black man. What he was totally unprepared for was his own residual racism which he immediately encountered in is own visceral reaction to the altered image in the mirror.

I had tampered with the mystery of existence and I had lost the sense of my own being. This is what devastated me. The Griffin that was had become invisible. The worst of it was that I could feel no compassion for this new person. I did not like the way he looked…But the thing was done and there was no possibility of turning back.

“Without warning Griffin had encountered his own racism face to face.” Realizing that his background had so inculcated prejudices in him on an emotional level, Griffin “was filled with despair.” He was setting out to glean information that he hoped would help educate the average white American about the evils of racism that they were accepting every day. Now he had found that there was a deeply ingrained “emotional” identification with these beliefs and stereotypes residing even within his own psyche.

To our eternal benefit Griffin pressed on and his sense of despair was lifted by his experience living with Negro families which provided “the emotional experience that the other is not other the other is me…” These insights set out in a 1966 Griffin essay are indicative of the many fruits of illumination that can be plucked from reading Man in the Mirror.

Thanks to Bonazzi, the Griffin Estate and Wings Press much more of Griffin's work is now readily available. In Morgan Atkinson's recent documentary, Uncommon Vision Jonathan Yardley regrets not having included BLM in a list of 10 books that changed the course of American history and ranks it with Uncle Tom's Cabin and The Grapes of Wrath. In my estimation it clearly belongs there. Black Like Me’s contribution was to assist the civil rights movement with the ultimate and definitive dismantling of what Blyden Jackson has referred to as the largest industry in the South, “keeping the Negro in his place.”

Following that intense experience at our initial interview, I felt that there was more to Griffin than BLM. Now on its fiftieth anniversary I am convinced that the book has endured and remains a classic because of the "more to" that was applied to the project by its author. The “more to” as we learned in the interview and is set out in Man in the Mirror consisted of his experiences in France with The Resistance, his wartime assignment in the Solomon Islands, his subsequent blindness and return to sight, his conversion and deep spirituality, and his wonderful talent as a keeper of a personal journal and the style of writing that developed along with it. In short, the continuing status and impact of Black Like Me is a tribute to the man who stood behind the Man in the Mirror.

About the Author

Dan Robertson grew up in Houston, TX, was educated at (now) West Texas A&M in Canyon, TX and the University of Texas. Austin. His 35-year career in public education was mostly in desegregation, community relations and planning. He lives in Austin and is striving to achieve a modest state of serenity in harmony and proximity with his artist wife and three remarkable daughters.

Endnotes

[i] Foote wrote screenplays for To Kill a Mockingbird in 1962 and Tender Mercies in 1963.

Citations

When citing this article, please use the following format:

Dan Robertson (2011).  Fifty Years with Black Like Me - A Personal Reflection.
Grassroots Economic Organizing (GEO) Newsletter, Volume 2, Issue 11.
http://geo.coop/node/768

 

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