“Black Like Me”

We enjoy watching baseball games, going to the movies and weekend adventures, but the coronavirus pandemic has interrupted all these routines. Instead, we’ve been reading more books at home.

I’ve also been adding books to our library. In fact we are bursting at the seams — all the nooks in the house are filled with newly acquired books.

Some are new titles such as “Intangibles: Unlocking the Science and Soul of Team Chemistry” by Joan Ryan. Joan and I worked together at The Chronicle, and this sports book explores the phenomena of “team chemistry.” It is appropriate for the business world too.

Others are “Season of the Witch” by Salon founder David Talbot, chronicling the cultural history of San Francisco from the ’60s to the ’80s; “Fear” by Bob Woodward or “Becoming” by Michelle Obama.

Another, “Rocket Men” by Robert Kurson, is an account of the Apollo 8 mission. It opens in 1968, with the space race in high gear. (I got to know Frank Borman, the astronaut who became the CEO of Eastern Airlines, when I wrote about airlines for the South Florida Sun Sentinel in the ’80s, so I found it interesting).

Others are books that I read a long time ago and want to reread. One that I came across and ordered earlier this month was “Black Like Me” by John Howard Griffin. I read it in high school. This nonfiction book — an inside look at our strained race relations — was first published in 1961, and it became a movie in 1964.

Rereading “Black Like Me” turned out to be timely: It occurred just ahead of the protests and rioting that broke out this past week in the aftermath of the death of George Floyd, the black Minneapolis man who died in police custody after a white policeman kneeled on his neck for more than 8 minutes. It was awful to watch — and inexcusable.

In “Black Like Me,” white journalist John Howard Griffin recounts his journey in the Deep South of the United States, at a time when African-Americans lived under racial segregation,” as Wikipedia summarizes. “Griffin had his skin temporarily darkened to pass as a black man. He traveled for six weeks throughout the racially segregated states of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabam, Arkansas and Georgia to explore life from the other side of the color lineSepia Magazine financed the project in exchange for the right to print the account first as a series of articles.

“Griffin kept a journal of his experiences; the 188-page diary was the genesis of the book. When he started his project in 1959, race relations in America were particularly strained. The title of the book is taken from the last line of the Langston Hughes poem ‘Dream Variations.'”

It was an effort to persuade America to open its eyes. “Today the idea of a white man darkening his skin to speak on behalf of black people might appear patronising, offensive and even a little comical,” as The Guardian newspaper observed. On the other hand, it added, “As long as one group persecutes, fears and detests another, ‘Black Like Me’ will, sadly, remain essential reading.”

“Black Like Me remains a remarkable document,” added an article in Smithsonian magazine. “John Howard Griffin changed more than the color of his skin. He helped change the way America saw itself.”

Since then, it seems, little has changed when it comes to race relations in America. And I would agree, the book remains relevant. As Griffin writes in the preface: “The real story is the universal story – one of men who destroy the souls of other men.”

Author: jeffpelline

Jeff Pelline is a veteran editor and award-winning journalist - in print and online. He is publisher of Sierra FoodWineArt magazine and its website SierraCulture.com. Jeff covered business and technology for The San Francisco Chronicle for 12 years, and he was a founding editor and Editor of CNET News for eight years, among other positions. Jeff has a bachelor's degree from UC Berkeley and a master's from Northwestern University. His hobbies include sailing, swimming, and trout fishing in the Sierra.

3 thoughts on ““Black Like Me””

  1. I lived in San Mateo the same years described in “Season of the Witch”,and knew many of the people featured in this book such as Leo Ryan and George Moscone. It was well worth reading.

    Sent from my iPad

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  2. I’ve used this book a number of times for sociology classes at Chico State, most recently 4 or 5 years ago. It still resonates well. A memorable book!

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