I don't pretend to understand what it's like to be any one of the truly persecuted minorities in the United States today. I am an atheist, yes, which puts me in a discriminated minority, but I have not been lynched, left to die on the side of the road, tied to a telephone pole and beaten, had a cross burned on my lawn, or been subject to "separate but equal" facilities. I once read that the only reason white men are atheists is so that they can finally feel persecuted and discriminated against, and I have to laugh in dark humor about it, for it's probably the only way I can be discriminated against by society at large.
Enter John Howard Griffin's book, "Black Like Me". In the precursory social heat before the flame-up of the civil rights movement of the late 20th century (1959, to be exact), he, a white man, dyed his skin using medication and stain and assumed the persona of an African-American man, traveling across the (very racist) southeastern United States in an attempt to see things without the privilege of being white. What I gained through his eyes, much like he did, was a completely new perspective on racial inequity.
What surprised me the most was how accessible the message of the book was and how relevant it still was. Griffin offers a personalization and humanization of the stories of the civil rights movement - police beatings and abuses of black people, "separate but equal" facilities, and more - that we all learn in high school, and it makes them so much more real and impactful. There are so many things that Griffin describes that everyone should read - messages that transcend time and apply equally to all groups that suffer discrimination due to a muted voice in society. I've tried three times to summarize them, but all of the words I write seem bumbling and stupid in comparison to his eloquence. For example, on the topic of white people stereotyping black people:
"But," white men would protest, "they really are like that. I've known hundreds of them and they're always the same." White men would claim black men were really happy; they liked it that way.He does a perfect job of outlining the Catch-22 of goups who are constrained to a certain social tier or place: caught between either demeaning oneself to fit the social stereotype and being slapped down in an attempt to grow out of the caricature. It should shake the foundations of anyone who holds "members of race X do Y" and cause a stern re-examination of those conclusions.
And in a sense, such white men had good evidence for these claims, because if black men did not, in those days, play the stereotyped role of the "good Negro," if he did not do his yessing and grinning and act out the stereotyped image, then he was immediately considered a "bad Negro," called "uppity, smart-alecky, arrogant," and he could lose his job, be attacked, driven away.
Beyond that, the book contains messages of activism that go beyond just dealing with issues with racism: the same lessons that Griffin discusses applies equally well to any group that has its voice muted merely on the flaw of being different from those in power. It calls out for those who see these injustices and speak. One example is from Griffin's epilogue: a black doctor had been invited to an event to celebrate the progress of racial equality:
"I view this as a historic night," [the white professor] announced. Then turning to the black industrial psychologist, he asked, "Don't you see this night as a historic turning point for this community?"This drives home the point that perspective is needed: don't get so overblown on what you think you're doing for the discriminated people that you neglect to consider that maybe, perhaps, just maybe you haven't made as much progress as you like to think and that you really should listen to the people you're trying so hard to help.
The black doctor, in a voice of perfect calm, replied, "Frankly, I'm not too excited."
(the professor continues to react in anger as the black man outlines social inequities that still exist)
I watched until the professor was almost screaming his anger and then stepped in. "Isn't this remarkable?" I said. "Here you gave me a standing ovation for telling you this same kind of truth. Now you have a black man, far more knowledgeable than I could be, who is honoring you with a truth, and you are furious with him. You will hear it from me and applaud me for saying it, but you can't stand it yet from him."
All in all, I'm amazed by how well this book has aged. It's written in a language that is not overridden by obscure colloquialisms or in a structure that can appeal to only readers of the time of its publication. Its message can easily apply to not only just discrimination against black people but also discrimination against Hispanics, the LGBT community, atheists, and any other group that is unfairly persecuted. It's a must-read for gaining a new perspective.