April 04, 2007

Black Like Me

You never really know a person until you have lived in their skin

"Black Like Me" is a non-fiction book written by American author John Howard Griffin in 1961. It tells the story of how Griffin, a white male from Texas, travels for six weeks in 1959 disguised as a black through the then racially segregated states of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia.

I first read this book about a year ago, but forgot the book on an aeroplane. Which is rather unfortunate, because I really enjoyed and treasured the book. A lot of controversy gets triggered today when a white person claims to understand the feelings of a black person. [[Natalie Portman]] immediately comes to mind. Griffin stands alone as the one white who really did understand.

Griffin left his family and moved to New Orleans, Louisiana. With the help of a dermatologist, he transforms his skin pigmentation with a combination of drugs, dyes and a UV lamp. After the transformation, no one he knew before recognises him; neither the whites nor the blacks.

Effectively disguised, he then embarks upon a trip across the four states, travelling through places  known to have the worst racist problems like Alabama.  In those segregated days, the blacks had their own universe and subculture, it just happened to be that they were in the same dimension as the whites. And god forbid anyone might even think of crossing over.

Griffin writes about his experiences in finding food, finding places to stay, and even finding a toilet. He writes about the attitude of the black man, their feelings and thoughts, their mindset and their acceptance of their lot in life. He discovers that the blacks were treated much the same as animals. The average attitude of the white citizen was "Animals don't eat the same food, sleep in beds or use toilets, so why would the blacks" ?

Not even on humanitarian grounds would the whites relent. A black could starve for all they cared... but he must walk six miles past all the "white" stores to get himself something to eat. Sometimes, it wasn't the individuals; a white person may be sympathetic, but the social stigma prevented them for acting out on their feelings. They would rather face a guilty conscience rather than contract the label of "nigger-lover".

After six weeks, he is sickened to the core, and reverses his disguise. He publishes his memoirs a couple of years later. As an after-word, the book relates the backlash and controversy spawned by his book. In his hometown he was burned in effigy, and got many death-threats. But the country-wide media hailed him as a hero and a great human-rights activist.

Very deep and insightful look into a world of unspeakable hate and prejudice. Do read it if you get a chance.