I can not count how many times I finish reading a passage, only to realize I have been holding my breath. I can no longer recall how often my eyes well with tears as a conflict unfolds. I can not remember how often a smile creeps across my face at the vision of a carefully crafted scene. But, I will not soon forget the feelings inspired by John Howard Griffin’s Black Like Me. Through details, setting, language and tension, Griffin has created a narrative that reaches beyond his experiences as a white man with black skin to the experiences of black and white American History. Griffin exposes the side of history that fades the otherwise crimson, virginal and bold colors of our country’s flag. He embarks on a racial research endeavor that teaches him more about himself and more about people in general, than he expects to learn. What unfolds for me is both historical and intimate. The pages breathe.
Seldom do we discuss race. Griffin takes us in and out of the homes of our black and white neighbors. He moves physically and mentally closer than I have been to people of either race, and does so in glimpses that feel more like meals than mere mouthfuls. He is often in the awkward position of justifying the actions of the characters he encounters: Griffin reveals people. By capturing people within their social, political, ethical and racial surroundings, he is able show them as meaningful characters—while not (often) undermining their intentions. Griffin shows us people in their own elements and for the most part, let’s them sink or swim in their own words. Griffin’s is an interesting experiment. I don’t know that I am a skin color away from my neighbor. I don’t think I consider skin color as the only aspect of what defines me as a black woman. As Griffin learns, people exist outside of their skin color. They conform to circumstance and opportunity, they respond to fear and succumb to hatred.
When I write, I write from the vantage point of my experiences and perceptions. Griffin certainly starts with the self. He doesn’t end there. As a writer, I appreciate Griffin’s examples of launching with the self and moving through history and culture in a way that includes political, economical, social and racial perceptions, experiences and motivations. And, Griffin, like no other nonfiction writer I have read, uses the elements of fiction to create an historical nonfiction narrative in a way that saddens, infuriates, and inspires me. Griffin uses the overarching natural tension between black and white and the tensions that exist between his travelling from one realm in to the other to create moments that I will endeavor to duplicate. Suspense slips upon me even at times when I have all the details and know all of the characters. I find my breath catches at the thought of Griffin being harmed or revealed. That tension takes talent to maintain: and Griffin has it.
I am revitalized by this work. Through details, sensory observations and imagery, Griffin pulls you in to uncomfortable images, and makes it impossible to turn away. Griffin’s language and style set scene after scene of despair while not sacrificing the beauty of language: “A burned-out light globe lay on the plank floor in the corner. Its unfrosted glass held the reflection of the overhead bulb, a speck of brightness (page 69)” I can feel the overwhelming weight of gloom chronicled within page after page. Yet, Griffin sprinkles humor where humor is due. The text is balanced.
Reading this work, this topic of race as experienced from someone who knows he is no different black than he is white, offers a perspective I seldom think on. While racism is still a reality, this narrative captures experiences I seldom heard from my grandparents. I rarely glimpsed them as victims. My soul is left whole though bruised from the reading. Griffin has created a work that feels intimately close to him and to history. He brings us closer to the psychology of racism and perhaps face to face with our own psychology. I am so thankful to have read this work. Its language gives me hope for my place in literature teetering as I do between the worlds of fiction and nonfiction. I don’t aspire to change the world with my writing, at this point I can only aspire to change me.