Monday, December 31, 2012

Remarkable Like Me

    As a child and young teen I remember flipping through a book of my dad's called Black Like Me by John Howard Griffin. It told the story of a white journalist/author who turned himself black by taking heavy doses of a pigment releasing drug. I think he used some skin stain as well.
    Griffin's book was widely read and highly influential in the 1960s. His status as a white man gave him added credibility with the American public as he described his experiences of traveling through Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and Louisiana as a black man. It should be noted that Griffin was apparently fully black in appearance, as he relates one conversation with another black where his companion complains about the black leadership not always listening to the voices of "dark skinned Negroes like us."
    I bought the book a couple of years ago and confess to having read only a third of it before setting it aside. It's really not a page turner, but nevertheless one of those books one would like to have read. I need to take it up again. I looked up the book on Amazon and did some additional research on Griffin today, and he turned out to be one of those people who after reader their Wikipedia entry or other Internet profile you just say "Wow!"
    For starters, Griffin did NOT die of cancer caused by the Oxsoralen he took to induce skin darkening. He died in 1980 at the age of 60 due to complications of diabetes.
    According to, Griffin was born in Dallas, Texas in 1920 and went to Paris at the age of 15 in search of a classical education. Of course, this makes me want to know a little bit more about his parents. Not many people are able or willing to send their 15 year old child off to Europe to study, and in 1935 he likely would have come home only once a year. And what Southerner had money to go to Europe in 1935?
    While barely out of his teens, he had completed studies in such diverse fields as French, literature, medicine, and music, worked as an intern conducting experiments in the use of music as therapy for the criminally insane, specialized in medieval music under the Benedictines at the Abbey of Solesmes, and was contemplating making the religious life his vocation. For some reason he was especially interested in Gregorian Chant. He wrote about his experiences at the Abbey and the personal struggles he underwent during this period of his life in his 1952 book, The Devil Rides Outside.
    Note that the link to above takes you to a collectible copy of his paperback novel released in the 1950s which became the subject of a court case, in part because of the "racy" cover. This novel described Griffin's personal struggles, which included certain sexual themes. As a result a bookstore owner was arrested for the sale of the book in Michigan, which resulted in the U.S. Supreme Court case of Butler v. Michigan, in which the Supreme Court ruled that a state could not, in the guise of protecting minors, restrict the non-obscene speech of adults.
    The opinion, written by Justice Felix Frankfurter, has a wonderful line that I plan insert into conversation at some point. He describes the Michigan law banning such speech as follows: "The State insists that, by thus quarantining the general reading public against books not too rugged for grown men and women in order to shield juvenile innocence, it is exercising its power to promote the general welfare. Surely, this is to burn the house to roast the pig." I love that last line and surely I will use it some day. An interesting law journal article states that the importance of Butler v. Michigan in free speech jurisprudence is often ignored. I tend to agree.
    I have placed the cart a bit before the horse in describing the court fight over Griffin's novel. His novel describes his life in his late teens. At the age of 19 World War II came and he joined the French Resistance and because of his medical training served as a medic. He later served more than three years in the Army Air Corps and spent almost two years as the only non-native on the island of Nuni, assigned to study the local population.
    In 1946 Griffin was blinded in an Air Corps accident. As a result of losing his sight he took up writing. He miraculously regained his eyesight 10 years later. After his death a collection of his essays that he wrote while blind was published, called Scattered Shadows: A Memoir of Blindness and Vision.
    Griffin wrote other novels but obviously his real claim to fame is Black Like Me. The idea for the book was truly remarkable. Yet look behind the book and there is a remarkable man with a truly remarkable life story. I'm surprised he has been so far beneath the radar of our consciousness.

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