Me Like Black; Like Me, Black!

As a title, Black Like Me is pretty over the top. Yes, I know it's from a Langston Hughes poem, but if you read the poem, I think it's kind of saying something different but, yes, "black like me" — funny — ha ha — I get it — but seriously, it's kind of a facile reference. Sort of like the title of this post.

So yeah, you know Black Like Me — it's that book where the white guy loads up on pills and sunlamps to make himself look African American — or "black," as they said in 1959, which facilitates flourishes of symmetry such as "I knew now that there is no such thing as a disguised white man, when the black won't rub off." (You can see pictures here.) You might think the experiment sounds strange and slightly offensive, and it is. But there's also a reason it had an impact and continues to be read.

I don't know if John Howard Griffin is actually single-handedly responsible for the first-person gonzo style of writing that seemed to get so much traction in the post-9/11 era, but clearly all that stuff owes a huge debt to him. Norah Vincent's Self-Made Man is basically exactly the same thing, though much more in depth and perhaps a little less defensible (if I recall correctly, the guys she interacts with don't really deserve to be misled, though the white racists in Griffin's books are fuckers).

On the one hand, there's something slightly sociopathic about the undercover genre and probably undercover work in general. Deriving at the truth of something by faking out and lying to people is ironic at best, and mostly ethically murky. I guess it just goes to show that you can explain away a lot of shit by attributing it to a writing project of some sort.

Black Like Me works best when Howard's punking racists. Where it gets weird — unaccountably bizarre — is when he begins fool black people. There's a point in his second day — the second day! — "as a black man" where he's asked his opinion about "the problem," and he actually opines that the community's biggest obstacle is "lack of unity." Like I said, weird.

But in terms of helping contemporary whites understand what it was like to live in a segregated society, Black Like Me seems important. In terms of recording the experience of segregation for posterity, Black Like Me is important. And yet, you just kind of cringe at points. And then at some point you're kind of like, Dude, blackface? Really?

And I can't believe people at the time weren't creeped out by the whole enterprise. Apparently Stokely Carmichael called Black Like Me "an excellent book — for whites." And later on, Eddie Murphy's "White Like Me" was a pitch-perfect sendup of the endeavor.

I don't want to make it sound like I'm undercutting the bravery in painting yourself black in 1959 and traveling through some mean parts of the south, but it is interesting how much mileage Griffin got from the experiment. According to the book, he was only darkly pigmented from November 7 to December 14 — so like five weeks total. Which is to say, this was no No Impact Man. And while Griffin traveled through some mean, nasty parts of the south, if you pay attention, it didn't seem like he was in those really fucked up places all that much — a lot of time he seems to be in New Orleans, then there was a harrowing bus ride to Mississippi — but he's quickly rescued by a friend who he stays with in safety (speaking of which, the gallows humor moments he shares with this friend is kind of uncomfortable). There are a bunch of bus rides around Mississippi, then several days in Mobile and up to Montgomery (where he takes a bit of a break and "passes" back into white society for a day or two) before heading to a Trappist monastery (!) in Georgia and then some days in Atlanta before going back to New Orleans. Again, I'm not saying what he did wasn't intense and crazy and . . . "Yikes!" And like I said, translating the experience of segregation for a non-black audience is powerful and important. But it is surprising how much followed from just six weeks. It makes those "year of . . ." writers seem like Edward Gibbon or something.

To that point, the book is 147 pages of the experiment itself, then another 47 pages of the subsequent reaction — although he and his family had to move out of their Texas town, there was also a lot of getting flown to New York and interviewed. That last part felt self-congratulatory.

And let's be real, it's easy to read a line like "My first afternoon as a Negro was one of dragging hours and a certain contentment" and dismiss the whole thing out of hand. But despite all that I kept thinking how great it'd be to do the same thing and test Ray Kelly's Stop and Frisk policy. Perhaps this will be moot soon enough, but if anyone wants to load up on Methoxsalen, it'd be interesting to see what happens. Again, it's about punking the bad guys (or the bad policy).

Ultimately, Griffin comes across as so gentle and earnest that it's hard to get too worked up about the book's obvious ridiculousness. Sometimes I kept thinking about the big reveal in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, which I am going to ruin for you because it's a stupid fucking piece of shit, where you find out that the boy's mother has figured out what the boy is doing and contacts in advance all the, uh, Blacks he has looked up and is planning to visit, just to sort of . . . actually, I don't know, why she did that. Anyway, I imagined that Griffin's wife was able to let all the towns know in advance that her guileless painted husband was headed their way. Impossible, I know, but I'm sure Jonathan Safran Foer could work with this detail . . .

Posted: September 5th, 2013 | Author: | Filed under: Books Are The SUVs Of Writing | Tags: ,

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