Book: Black Like Me
Author: John Howard Griffin
Review by: Trevor Williams, managing editor, Global Atlanta and publisher, Grounded Global Media.
If 2020 was a year to reflect on white complicity in decades of racial injustice that boiled over into nationwide protests, 2021 was supposed to have been one where we as a nation could recalibrate and start doing something about it.
I picked up “Black Like Me” after it was recommended during last year’s holiday book exchange at Constellations, the civically minded workspace in the Sweet Auburn historic district where we keep the Global Atlanta offices.
The 1962 work is an example of what some call “immersion journalism,” a documentary-style technique where the writer goes undercover to experience from the inside-out a point of view he wouldn’t be able to elucidate through traditional modes of inquiry.
Author and magazine writer John Howard Griffin, a white man, hatched a plan at the height of the struggle for Black civil rights to use medication and a stain to darken his skin in order to live as a “Negro” and experience the degradations of American racism first hand.
What he finds on the other side of an invisible barrier while traveling across the South, starting in New Orleans, moving through Montgomery and Selma and ending in Atlanta, was a despair more demoralizing than he expected. It wasn’t just the verbal abuse and the “hate stare” — his term for the glowers and scowls whites exhibited when encountering the Black Mr. Griffin. It was the constant psychological weight of white supremacy, especially when cloaked in a paternalistic, self-serving “concern” for the Blacks’ plight, that proved crushing. Economic disenfranchisement was also galling, and as he starts to move in and out of the two worlds, it’s particularly frustrating as the reader to see how Griffin is treated differently at the same establishment solely based on the skin tone he’s sporting that day.
Living in the Black community as an insider, with access to the unfiltered views of “Negroes,” Griffin finds it easy to debunk all the eugenicist arguments for white superiority — that circular reasoning of oppression that segregationists utilized to great effect during this deplorable time. What’s obvious to us now became clear to Griffin (and hopefully his readers in Sepia magazine and his later book) in a new way: Blacks were not lagging in wealth generation or educational attainment due to intrinsic traits; they were simply and strategically held back.
Today, “systemic racism” has become a watch word, and with the killings of Ahmaud Arbery here in Georgia and George Floyd, among many others, the U.S. is reckoning anew with the idea that the system has been rigged against many of our fellow citizens.
For me, the vivid, eloquent descriptions of Griffin’s encounters with white racism and Black resiliency, especially coming from a journalist who’s “white like me,” helped illustrate my own privilege in a different way: as the ability to dream for a better future — for myself and my two sons — without an entire framework of oppression putting barriers in the way.
Other readers will similarly find perspective on issues like police brutality and the wealth gap that are strikingly relevant 60 years later. Griffin is also incisive in picking apart the theoretical underpinnings and moral failures of racism — as well as calling out particular racists — without vilifying or glorifying either race collectively, an important posture in today’s hyper-politicized debate.
As a side note, Griffin’s description of Atlanta as a unique place where strides had already been made toward Black empowerment showed that Martin Luther King Jr.’s hometown had already started to become the “City Too Busy to Hate,” urged on by pragmatic political leadership.
Atlanta’s secret sauce then was a set of towering civil rights leaders, both men and women, whose activism was united through faith, galvanized through education and supercharged through business. With a new mayor elected and a new year approaching, my hope is that our city can continue to lead in the fight to rectify historical injustices that have persisted for far too long, becoming a true example in what continues to be a global struggle for equality.
See some of my previous reviews here:
Editor’s notes: Global Atlanta will receive a 10 percent commission on any purchase of this book through the links on this page. Bookshop.org also contributes 10 percent of the purchase price of each book to independent booksellers around the United States.
Each year, Global Atlanta asks influential readers and community leaders to review the most impactful book they read during the course of the year. This endeavor has continued annually since 2010.
All books were chosen and reviews written independently, with only mild editing from our staff.