Book in a Nutshell: In 1959, author John Howard Griffin, with the help of a second-guessing dermatologist, transforms his skin color so that he can discover what it is like to live in the Deep South as a black man. For about six weeks, Griffin struggles to keep his basic needs met, hears things from other men unlike anything he’s ever heard, and wrestles with an internal, psychological turmoil he doesn’t quite anticipate. This book details these experiences and includes some of his conclusions and reflections about the race “question” in America.
Reaction: Howard’s work from nearly 60 years ago produced some complex responses from me, both emotionally and philosophically.
As a sociology major in undergrad, I relished the idea of someone literally trying to live in another person’s shoes. It is a little mind-blowing that this experiment even worked and that Howard wasn’t caught by more people. Because of the nature of his experiment much of the book reads like a thriller as the reader constantly wonders what is John going to face next.
At one level, even as he writes to push for social justice and peace, Howard’s observations can come across as offensive. He makes some fairly broad assertions about how African-Americans feel about certain issues, and he often uses the “we” pronoun as he does it. I kept saying to myself, “Umm, John, you’re still white. How do you really know?” I am sure Howard learned a great ordeal in his experiment, but he seems condescending at times even towards the people he is trying to understand and defend. Using more direct quotes from some of his friends in the black community might have fixed this; however, I do understand that at the time of his writing this, Howard’s goal was for a white audience to receive the message and doing so might have hindered his success there.
On another level, Howard’s experience often provoked me to consider just how much of this has not changed at all. Blatant attacks seem to be on the rise lately and need to be confronted, but I was convicted by some of the more subtle expressions of racism that Howard’s book brings to light. One of these expressions is the tendency of the white man to loosen his tongue and talk more freely around men of color. Whereas we might tighten up our language around white company to maintain a level of decency, whites can knowingly or unknowingly settle into a rougher vernacular that can give the impression that the person talking to us is not worth the same conversational dignity. Because of this helpful observation, I believe I will have more awareness not just in what I say but how I say it.
What resonates the loudest even today are Howard’s calls to the white community to do three things: Be Informed, Listen, and Relate. The whites in Howard’s day and often in ours do not truly know about life as a black man. To bridge the gap and build a more equal and just community, people of all races, but especially the white community, should seek to be learners. They should be better listeners. And they should build authentic, mutual relationships with people from other races. The book may have been written in 1960, but these lessons are timeless; and they are needed in America right now.
Quote: “I was the same man, whether white or black.”
Ranking: 4 out of 5 stars