Thursday, July 29, 2010

"black like me"

New-to-do Nuts- I know the title of this post may surprise some of you, since you may know me and know that I am not, in fact, black. However, neither was John Howard Griffin, who wrote the book "Black Like Me," after taking a bold, unapologetic step during the Civil Rights Movement. Griffin took medication to change his skin color to look like a black man's, then toured the Deep South to see for himself what all the "racism" was about.

I recently read this book and was engulfed by unexpected emotions and startling questions. It stirred up past feelings of embarrassment and even shame to wear my own white skin. It reminded me of the reality of "white privilege" and how I am a beneficiary of it, whether I like it or not. It opened my eyes to the prejudices and the ignorance I still carry inside. "Black Like Me" has taken me on a personal journey wherein I have been consumed with the notions of race relations and how inadequately we have addressed them in our country and around the world. Instead of celebrating the beauty of our differences and challenging ourselves to extend love beyond our own cultures, we are content to misunderstand, judge, demean, and hate each other.

I've been trying to capture the essence of the book in order to share it with you all, but I am finding that it is simply not that simple. I can only encourage you to read it for yourselves and try to make sense of the ignorance, indifference, and injustice that was a part of Griffin's world and is still, unfortunately, so much a part of ours.

Though the book is full of pointed examples of inequality, I found the following story particularly painful to read.

(A white man from New York has come to Alabama to "observe" what is happening in the South with regard to "the Negroes." At this point, he has called out to Griffin and they have begun a conversation.)

"How about you and me having a drink?" he said.
"No thanks," I said and turned away.
"Wait a minute, dammit. You people are my brothers. It's people like me that are your only hope. How do you expect me to observe if you won't talk to me?"
"Very well," I said. "I'll be glad to talk with you."
"Hell, I've observed all I can stomach," he said. "Let's us go get just roaring blinko drunk and forget all this damned prejudice stuff."
"A white man and a Negro," I laughed. "We'd both hear from the merciful Klan."
"Damned right--a white man and a Negro. Hell, I don't consider myself any better than you--not even as good, maybe. I'm just trying to show some brotherhood."
Though I knew he had been drinking, I wondered that an educated man and an observer could be so obtuse--could create such an embarrassing situation for a Negro.

(After a few minutes, a black man selling turkeys pulls up in a car.)

Ignoring the white man, he spoke to me. "Would you like to buy some nice fat turkeys?" he asked.
"I don't have any family here," I said.
"Wait a minute there," the white man said. "Hell, I'll buy all your turkeys...just to help you out. I'll show you fellows that not all white men are bastards. How many've you got in there?"
We looked into the car and saw several live turkeys in the backseat.
"How much for all of them?" the white man asked, pulling a ten-dollar bill from his wallet.
The vendor looked at me, puzzled, as though he did not wish to unload such a baggage on the generous white man.
"What can you do with them when you get them out of the car?" I asked.
"What're you trying to do," the white man asked belligerently, "kill this man's sale?"
The vendor quickly put in: ", mister, he's not trying to do that. I'm glad to sell you all the turkeys you want. But where you want me to unload them? You live around here?"
"No, I'm just an observer. Hell, take the ten dollars. I'll give the damned turkeys away."
When the vendor hesitated, the white man asked, "What's the matter--did you steal them or something?"
"Oh, no, sir..."
"You afraid I'm a cop or something?"
The unpardonable had been said. The white man, despite his protestations of brotherhood, had made the first dirty suggestion that came to his mind. He was probably unaware of it but it escaped none of us. By the very tone of his question he revealed his contempt for us. His voice had taken on a hard edge, putting us in our place, as they say. He had become just like the whites he decried.
"I didn't steal them," the turkey man said coldly. "You can come out to my farm. I've got more there."
The white man, sensing the change, the resentment, glared at me. "Hell, no wonder nobody has any use for you. You don't give a man a chance to be nice to you. And dammit, I'm going to put that in my report." He turned away grumbling.


This excerpt highlights the absurdity of a good-intentioned white man who has little self-awareness and seemingly no empathy. May it serve as a warning to those of us who would hope to bridge the gap between all races, no matter what race we ourselves come from. Let us first seek to understand--not to be understood, not to put on a pretentious show of how "tolerant" or "politically correct" we are, and certainly not to "help."

Thank you to John Howard Griffin and to all of the heroes of the Civil Rights Movement who risked their reputations, their freedom, and even their lives in order for us to be where we are today! May we realize, however, that we are not "there" yet. Much inequality, segregation, and racism still exists. Let's continue to seek peace and reconciliation and to truly understand!

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