This is a book about racism, about how deep-rooted it is despite all the rhetoric to the contrary in late 1950s/early 1960s America. A white journalist decided to go undercover as a black man through a series of medical/cosmetic alterations in an effort to experience for himself a slice of life as a black man. Griffin’s experience shows how despite retaining his name, his clothing, his manner of speech and behaviour, people still make preconceived notions about him as a person based solely on the colour of his skin. Even the whites who purport to be inclusive fall into speech and thinking patterns, however unconsciously, that exacerbates the unfairness the blacks feel, particularly in the white concept of half-hearted conciliatory gestures that don’t go all the way. For example, the recognition of a black professor as a peer in academia and according him with commensurate pay and opportunities, but he’s forced to live outside of the city due to the persecution faced by his wife and children.
I really disliked the way the book started, particularly how Griffith feels as he undergoes the treatment of darkening his skin, about how when he looks into the mirror for the first time as a black man that he’s somehow fallen into this proverbial black hole of hopelessness and despair, despite not having experienced yet any interactions with the outside world as a black man. As if the mere act of turning black has zapped all his sunny disposition. This struck me as being overly dramatic and as I was listening to this segment of the narrative in the car, drivers from lanes either side of my car will have seen how scrunched up my face looked, if they had taken a peek. I knew I was tackling a heavy subject matter, but I had moments when I felt like if this was the tone the book was going for then I’m not sure I could have continued.
Thankfully, after Griffin’s internal epiphany, he got onto actually living the life of a black man, and here he was much better. He painted a community of blacks who were bonded together through shared sufferings and feelings of injustice, and with good cause. He also painted the whites in what I thought was fair light, showing kindness where it was given, but documenting the hate stares and ‘remember-your-place’ attitudes the whites more often displayed. There were plenty of takeaways here, but mostly the sense of injustice was rife, and the sense of danger constantly permeated in the air for a black man.
His sojourn was about 6 weeks, at which point he decided to end his experiment, document his journey and appeared in media detailing his experience and advocating civil equality, and it is this part that I most admired him. He outlined the lack of equal opportunities afforded to young black perpetuated a vicious circle of crime and constant underachievement, and the need to ensure the black community get access to quality education was imperative to moving out of poverty. The one thing that struck me was how the black civil movement leaders persevered on a strategy of peaceful resistance, and not give in to need to retaliate against this awful situation, and remaining courteous and kind and all the things the whites constantly say they are not. The story of the poor family who’d offer a stranger (black Griffin as he was stranded on a lonely highway at night) a roof over his head despite barely holding it together as a family speaks volumes of the mentality of the people at that time.
I’m mindful of the time when the book was written, and thus the melodrama of the start may be completely justified despite my reservations, but once you get past that the book becomes incredibly interesting. I think Griffin achieved his objectives of getting a closer look at the problem, and in his way helped his nation address the problem.
I’m trying to tie this back to our national experience here where I am, and while there are parallels it’s nowhere near as insidious as in 1960s America. But it teaches lessons that I strongly feel politicians here must learn. Recently there was a minister here who proposed the establishment of a tech mall solely to cater to Muslim businessmen and patrons, because, as he put it, the existing tech mall (which caters to people of all races I should add), somehow comes across as marketing only to non-Muslims (which is utter rubbish). Here we have a governmental leader. Proposing segregation. In 2015. I couldn’t believe it. He needs to open his eyes and read more, travel more.
He probably wouldn’t find parallels, but he could start by reading this book too.