Rummanah Aasi
  Looking back on my high school required reading list, I only seem to have read just one book about slavery and racism which was Huck Finn by Mark Twain. I hope to read To Kill a Mockingbird later this year and recently finished John Howard Griffins amazing personal account of racism in his modern classic nonfiction novel, Black Like Me.

Description: Before the Civil Rights Movement occurred, journalist John Howard Griffin pondered what is was like to be black in the Deep South. If he only changed the color of his skin, how different would his life be? Black Like Me is a personal account on how humans reacted in the response to something is essentially really trivial, the color of ones skin. 

Review: Griffin spent a little over a month, some of November and December of 1959 with his skin artificially darkened by medication. He wanted to do a sociological experiment in how people reacted to race in America's South. Going into this project, he realized that it wasn't going to be easy and sought out help and support from various people. During those months, he traveled through Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia, finding out at first hand what it is like to be treated as a second-class citizen. While we all have read several stories of injustices, the lynchings, the civil rights cases before, Griffin's experiences are raw and thrust in front of faces. We both participate as both the observer and the participant of these daily injustices such as the rudeness of the clerk when he tried to pay for a train ticket with a big bill; the difficulty he had in finding someone who would cash a traveler's check for a Negro; the bus-driver who wouldn't let any blacks off the bus to use the restrooms; the white man who followed him at night and threatened to mug him.
   In attempts to not generalize, Griffin provides both from both races who helped him regardless of his race at the time. As you can imagine, this report created a lot of stir when it was officially released. Many of the people who replied to Griffin's story wrote that they too feel guiltily and ashamed about how the minority have been treated but are afraid to stand up because of the strong back lash they would feel if they had let their opinions be known and heard. While some may argue that Black Like Me is "the white experience of racism", I would actually argue that this book forces everyone regardless of their race to think about racism and stereotypes we project upon each other.
 Black Like Me is a powerful, unflinching, influential, and gripping story. Though it is nonfiction, it does not read like a textbook but rather as a nonfiction narrative with many similar characteristics of an adventure story. Like Griffin, I was always scared that someone would find out the truth. His interior monologue how he himself is transformed by simply darkening his skin is utterly fascinating. Just the simple act of writing his wife a letter explaining that he is okay seems like a crime. Though Griffin only spends a month with dark skin, his revelations of how we treat each other is still relevant today. Black Like Me is a must read and I now understand why it has been on a required reading list for many schools.

Rating: 5 stars

Curriculum Connection: English, Social Studies

Words of Caution: There is some strong language in the book. Recommended for high school students and up.

If you like this book try: White Like Me by Tim Wise or "Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?" by Beverly Daniel Tatum
3 Responses
  1. Oh boy did I read this a long time ago (like decades). But you know, it's one of those books that creeps up on me still from time to time. I reference it in conversation, hear about it in news stories, etc. I am so glad you liked it.


  2. Jules Says:

    I grew up in Oakland, California in the late '60's and early '70's. It was an interesting time and place to be a kid because I took so much for granted and so much confused me. Being in the white minority at my elementary school, my best friends were black and I just didn't understand what all the fuss was about. We were among the first schools nationwide to have a school holiday for Martin Luther King's birthday. It wasn't until I moved out to the whiter suburbs in high school and parts of the midwest that I began to understand that my experience was not that of most other kids my age.

    1961 was not coincidentally the same year Dr. Seuss wrote his short story about the Sneetches. So much talk and literature erupted during those years of attempting to fix a major flaw in the country's fabric. It is a testament to Griffin's writing that his book has endured this long and still appeals to teen readers, especially because it is non-fiction.


  3. Helen: Despite its brevity and how long ago it was written, it is still very timely. I can't believe it took me this long to read it. I'm so glad that I did.

    Jules: I had the opposite experience. I was part of a very diverse school in Chicago but when I moved to the suburbs, I quickly became the minority. While we may hate to use the "r" word, it still exists in various forms and under different guises.


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