Saturday, March 17, 2007

"Black Like Me"

The Washington Post's Jonathan Yardley revisits John Howard Griffin's Black Like Me:
In the fall of 1959 an obscure white journalist and novelist named John Howard Griffin, a native of Texas, went to a dermatologist in New Orleans with what can only be called an astonishing request: He wanted "to become a Negro." A man of conscience and religious conviction, he was deeply troubled by the racial situation in his native South. He was "haunted" by these questions: "If a white man became a Negro in the Deep South, what adjustments would he have to make? What is it like to experience discrimination based on skin color, something over which one has no control?"

The dermatologist agreed to cooperate with Griffin's project, darkening his skin "with a medication taken orally, followed by exposure to ultraviolet rays." Griffin, who had arranged with the editors of Sepia, the prominent black magazine, to write about his experiences, was in a hurry to get started and asked for "accelerated treatments," which he soon supplemented with stain. He also shaved his head, "since I had no curl." He did not look in the mirror until the process was complete, and when he did, he saw "the face and shoulders of a stranger -- a fierce, bald, very dark Negro." He was stunned:

"The transformation was total and shocking. I had expected to see myself disguised, but this was something else. I was imprisoned in the flesh of an utter stranger, an unsympathetic one with whom I felt no kinship. . . . I looked into the mirror and saw reflected nothing of the white John Griffin's past. No, the reflections led back to Africa, back to the shanty and the ghetto, back to the fruitless struggles against the mark of blackness. . . . 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."

Thus began.... [read on]
--Marshal Zeringue