52 Years Ago A White Man Turned His Skin Black In ‘Black Like Me’; Is Racial Empathy Any Closer?

The notion of racial empathy was profoundly explored in 'Black Like Me,' but 50 years after MLK's 'dream,' do we really believe we'll ever truly get there? Image by Dan Heller  @ ActingWhiteActingBlack

The notion of racial empathy was profoundly explored in ‘Black Like Me,’ but 50 years after MLK’s ‘dream,’ do we really believe we’ll ever truly get there? Image by Dan Heller @ ActingWhiteActingBlack

As we wrap up the 50th Anniversary of MLK’s “I Have a Dream” speech and shift our attention to what’s next – Syria, ACA implementation, the latest take-down of Miley Cyrus – the issue of racial politics and how we process them may move slightly off screen, but it’s never too far from the zeitgeist, wafting like ethers through our political, social and cultural discourse as if part of the very air we breathe. It can’t help but be so; we are Americans, after all, and this country has struggled with its racial identity from first day explorers set foot here with slaves en tow. The ensuing years brought slave-owning Founding Fathers who struggled with the matter, Presidents who fought and died for it, and a burgeoning citizenry that evolved (forcibly, in some cases) from the fractious days of the Civil War, the heinous Jim Crow south, to the more coded, condescending racism of the 21st century. But whatever form it takes, racism remains a part of our national DNA and cannot be ignored… despite the insistence of some that we’re post-racial or, as the delusional Ann Coulter once asserted, “it no longer exists.”

For younger generations who either grew up mercifully color-blind or who live in environments in which elevated thinking is possible, we are, indeed, some measure of post-racial. But, in too many cases, the passing down of hate and bigotry is alive and well, complete with a dismissal of the gravity of what so many endured, not all that long ago, in the vital, violent effort to bring civil rights to all American citizens. Whatever you might think of the current movie, Lee Daniel’s The Butler, it brings to painful forefront the journey of the Freedom Riders, black and white activists, some of whom were only college age, who displayed profound courage in the life and death struggle for civil rights. The images and videos from that era are so shocking and gut-wrenching to anyone with a conscience, it’s hard to comprehend how hate on that scale could thrive and be supported by leaders and political officials, just as it’s impossible to grasp how anyone in today’s culture can deny that anguishing reality that existed for so many in our black communities, leaving scars that exist to this day.

Freedom Riders’ burning bus image  @ Sundance

Freedom Riders’ burning bus image @ Sundance

But many do deny it. In fact, it’s too easy for narrow-minded conservatives or fact-eschewing bigots to brush aside residual racial anger as a “fixation on the past” or, as one person so callously put it, “a need to get past their black thing,” particularly when the hate, cruelty and murderous mentality of that era were all so extreme and destructive, with remnants still alive and well in some of our current culture. It takes courage to not only recognize that but continue to push against it, but when young people today cower about the ‘dangers’ of using their real names online or fear speaking out against hate, it would do them well to reflect on the courage of people their age just 50 short years ago who boarded buses and traveled into the turbulent deep south to risk death for the cause of righteousness. Makes social media dangers pale by comparison.

Part of the dialogue that arose from the 50th celebrations was the continuing debate about how hard it is – or isn’t – for blacks to find true equality in this country, and for whites to recognize that in many cases they still don’t have it. During the post-Zimmerman verdict, when social media was enflamed with racial outrage on all sides of the issue, there were far too many clunky comments that made clear just how distant we remain in terms of understanding each other. Some blacks fumed that whites weren’t speaking up or expressing outrage (clearly they weren’t “friends” or “followers” of the many whites who were wildly vocal in horror over the verdict, yours truly included). At the same time, some whites left tone-deaf comments asserting it “wasn’t about race,” or denying the inciting incident of the event. One white women even went so far as to post that since even she’d been eye-balled by security guards in department stores, the persistence of that oppressive fact-of-life for blacks “wasn’t a racial issue.”

When clarity and understanding is that far off, clearly there is missing information and perception on both sides of the divide. Transcending that comes down to two things: observation and empathy.

Both are needed to truly understand the experience of another person, certainly a person of another race. One needs to have the ability to honestly observe the facts, the day-to-day, inescapable minutia of that person’s reality, as well as be able to “walk in their shoes,” the most common translation of empathy. Since whites have always held the majority – though losing that position shortly – they have never known the systemic burden of minority status; the sense of being less, of being oppressed in ways large and small; being categorized immediately by skin color or eye shape (and, frankly, even after whites do lose that majority in numbers, rich white men will, by and large, remain the power brokers and wealth holders in business and politics). So is it even possible for a white person to fully grasp any part of the spectrum of life for a black American? Truly, honestly and without dismissiveness or equivocation?

Probably not, but one man tried. In 1961, a book was published by a writer named John Howard Griffin called Black Like Meits title taken from the Langston Hughes poem, “Dream Variations.” Griffin was a brilliant scholar who pursued a classical French education from the age of 15, later considering life as a cleric, who came upon the idea of taking “empathy” to its most physical manifestation. From The Smithsonian Magazine:

John Howard Griffin had embarked on a journey unlike any other. Many black authors had written about the hardship of living in the Jim Crow South. A few white writers had argued for integration. But Griffin, a novelist of extraordinary empathy rooted in his Catholic faith, had devised a daring experiment. To comprehend the lives of black people, he had darkened his skin to become black. As the civil rights movement tested various forms of civil disobedience, Griffin began a human odyssey through the South, from New Orleans to Atlanta. [… ]

“Black Like Me disabused the idea that minorities were acting out of paranoia,” says Gerald Early, a black scholar at Washington University and editor of Lure and Loathing: Essays on Race, Identity, and the Ambivalence of Assimilation. “There was this idea that black people said certain things about racism, and one rather expected them to say these things. Griffin revealed that what they were saying was true. It took someone from outside coming in to do that. And what he went through gave the book a remarkable sincerity.”

A half century after its publication, Black Like Me retains its raw power. Still assigned in many high schools, it is condensed in online outlines and video reviews on YouTube. But does the book mean the same in the age of Obama as it did in the age of Jim Crow?

“Black Like Me remains important for several reasons,” says Robert Bonazzi, author of Man in the Mirror: John Howard Griffin and the Story of Black Like Me. “It’s a useful historical document about the segregated era, which is still shocking to younger readers. It’s also a truthful journal in which Griffin admits to his own racism, with which white readers can identify and perhaps begin to face their own denial of prejudice. Finally, it’s a well-written literary text that predates the ‘nonfiction novel’ of Mailer, Capote, Tom Wolfe and others.”

John Howard Griffin, a white man, is pictured on the left, fully immersed in his experiment to see what life truly was for a black man in America. Image  @ SmithsonianMagazine

John Howard Griffin, a white man, is pictured on the left, fully immersed in his experiment with black skin, determined to see what life truly was for a black man in America. Image @ SmithsonianMagazine

As a child I remember my father reading this book, talking to us about Griffin’s experiment and its impact upon him as a white man. I was utterly fascinated by the idea of someone who would so thoroughly immerse himself in the most realized process of empathy possible (his act of turning his skin black was later reported to have caused skin cancer, a story debunked by Snopes). I was lucky that, despite growing up in small midwestern farm community with nary an ethnic face in the mix during my entire childhood, my parents were deeply non-bigoted; in fact, they were fiercely determined to raise us with racial compassion and open-mindedness, a principle that held us in good stead as we traversed our own lives and faced the harder realities of life beyond our family. My own journey with racial empathy came when I lived for six years with a black man in Los Angeles during the pre-Rampart Scandal days of the 80s. I wrote about it in a piece called Loudly Against the Language of Racism, and while I had thought my understanding and awareness of racial politics was on pretty solid ground, that experience of co-existing with a black man was a cold-water dip that informed me, unequivocally, that even the most open-minded of whites cannot fathom the incessant, implicit, explicit, tacit, spoken, hinted at or hollered racism that happens in the moment-to-moment mundaneness of every-day life. My lesser experience was shocking enough; I cannot imagine the life-changing revelations of Griffin’s in researching Black Like Me.

The point is, we’ll move on now from this 50th anniversary to conduct life in its present incarnation, some of us embracing the past while celebrating progress, hoping for a deepened understanding and a wider sense of compassion. Others will attempt to build all-white neo-Nazi cities in North Dakota or dismiss the efforts of kids in Georgia organizing their first integrated prom. It’s a fluid, erratic, polarized and persistent situation; don’t let anyone kid you. But we’ll keep going. Hopefully 50 years from now we’ll be celebrating a truer, further break from the racism of our past; a clearer embrace of color-blindness, brought about by the ongoing evolution of honest observation and true, heartfelt, deeply felt empathy.