Friday, July 24, 2009

Black Like Me (Part 2 of 2)

Most of us are about as eager to be changed as we were to be born, and go through our changes in a similar state of shock. --James Baldwin

Black Like Me is a well-intentioned, well-meaning book (and film) about a white Southern journalist who goes “undercover” as a black man in an attempt to discover for himself the true conditions of black life in the segregated south in 1959. John Howard Griffin changes his phenotype to become “black”—but it is all surface.

If you visit his page on Wikipedia or decide to read the book for yourself (as well as Griffin's other "passing" narratives), you can read more for yourself about the details of his transformation—in shorthand, he did it with drugs, tanning lamps, and skin cream. The photograph at right is of Griffin with Black Star Photo Agency photographer Don Rutledge during his transformation.

Griffin maintains a detailed awareness of how “clean” everything is in his Negro life travels. He describes with amazement (at times almost insultingly, in my opinion!) the cleanliness of the rooms he rents, the cleanliness of the bathroom in the rooming house, and the clean restaurants. One might think that he is phobic about it. He also seems hyper-focused on the cleanliness of the black body.

I haven’t done a thorough subtextual reading as yet, but an early scene in the book (not in the film, though) has him in a bathroom with two other black men: “One man was in the shower. Another, a large, black-skinned man, sat naked on the floor awaiting his turn at the shower. He leaned back against the wall with his legs stretched out in front of him.”

Griffin engages in conversation with these black men, alluding casually to the fact that they are naked—he remains fully clothed, which makes for a strange power relation—there is a rejection of the vulnerability (and equality) that nakedness offers. The scene reads pretty bizarrely—intimate and oddly titillating in its extreme corporeality: “In the shower’s obscurity, all I could see was a black shadow and gleaming white teeth. I stepped over the other’s outstretched legs and washed quickly, using the soap the man in the shower thrust into my hands. When I had finished I thanked him.”

The suggestiveness of this scene continues, as the naked man on the floor offers Griffin his towel, and then the two men share a post (non) coital cigarette while still in the bathroom. He begins to feel the injustice thrust upon him because of the color of his skin, but Griffin ultimately remains a voyeur, sharing the details of his experience with his readership. That readership is important to Griffin’s project.

Although he is writing for Sepia Magazine, his assumed readership is white—he wants whites, especially Southerners, to see how it feels to be black and to have to put up with the indignities of inequality. He remains an outsider, though, and I think that part of the key to his problem is that he is unable to understand the nature of black joy. For instance, when he is in his room, he hears talk, laughter, and “juke-box jazz.” This depresses him—why would hearing laughter and music make him sad? His view of black life denies any possibility that there could be joy in blackness. He cannot view it in any way as separate from white oppressiveness. He sees himself (and thus other blacks) only as “victim.” Black joy is fleeting and pathetic.

The other aspect of this expose is how deeply Naturalism has influenced Griffin’s views. In Griffin's view, blacks, as oppressed people, are sensual, sexual beings—truly la bête humaine, in the Naturalist tradition of Emile Zola (or Stephen Crane, or Richard Wright). He ascribes a heightened pathology among poor blacks to high rates of poverty and a legacy of discrimination, rather than to innate differences between them (us?) and whites: “Here sensuality was escape.” Griffin's blacks are “depraved on account of they’re deprived,” so to speak (cf "Gee, Officer Krupke" from West Side Story). However, he also writes of the pornographic fascination that many of the white men he met had about blacks, and of his own fruitless attempts to refute racist stereotypes. He is traumatized by his experiences--in Mississippi, he is so troubled by the trope of a black man looking at a white woman that his thoughts about his own wife (while seeing himself as a black man) reflect his own fear of miscegenation.

The text is so rooted in the sociology of the 1950s and 60s that it’s almost nostalgic. Another aspect of the text is how heavily Griffin’s Catholicism plays in his writing. He invokes the saints often, also finding respite in reading classic texts by Catholic theologians, and writes euphemistically on interracial prostitution—references to “pay [ing] for various types of sensuality with various ages of Negro girls,” “perversion dates,” and the like. He proudly notes the Church’s more or less progressive (for the era) stance on racial discrimination, and finds refuge and peace in his faith.

Now, the film version of Black Like Me was also well-meaning and well-intentioned—made by individuals committed to racial equality and justice, with good Lefty, radical credentials. However well-meaning, though, the awkwardness and complete unreality of the project remains inescapable. The dialogue is stilted, and the scenes where John is confronted and threatened by white racists are incredibly contrived with some unintentional humor. The portraits of the whites sit at opposite extremes—rednecks with broad accents versus kindly, progressive (for the era) whites.

In one flashback, we see John being chased down by actors whose “redneck” accents and behavior are so clichéd that the scene loses its power. He prays to St. Jude—is this his way of saying that racial equality is a "lost cause?" When the flashback ends, he is staring at his reflection in a mirror—he hears the racist voices yell out “Nigger!” and breaks the mirror in fury and self-recognition. His skin dye (part of the coloring process) spills onto the photograph of his white wife and son and he laughs hysterically at the irony.

When John just can’t take “the blackness” anymore, he seeks refuge at the home of the white liberal publisher of his dispatches, who is the only one he feels can truly understand his predicament as a white-black-white man (gets confusing, doesn’t it?). He apparently has not made the inroads into understanding “the black experience” that he thought he would.

As I said earlier, it’s the absence of joy that I believe he is missing. He does not grasp the capacity for joy in the midst of the circumstances of the Negroes with whom he comes in contact. He wants to go back to the white world—he weeps about being black: “I don’t know how they [blacks] have stood it all their lives!” to which his editor replies, “Well, that’s simple, they have no choice.” John continues with his experiment--since I want you to read the book, I have deliberately left out the integrationists, Communists (and their sympathizers), Uncle Toms, education, housing, and all the other topics Griffin discusses. The aftermath--the media blitz, the death threats--read the book for yourself! I don’t want to say too much more, as I think the book, which is still in print, is well worth reading. It is available at the great and wonderful Plainfield Public Library.

All best, Rebecca

P.S. You must read about how Griffin turns himself back into a “white” man and “passes” back into white society—it is a completely unnerving experience.


Anonymous said...

It might be interesting to compare 'Black Like Me' to 'Watermelon Man,' staring Godfry Cambridge and based on Franz Kafka's Metamorphosis.

Author said...

Thanks for the suggestion. I may take that up later--perhaps do a series on passing/blackface/whiteface. Actually, though, Watermelon Man was adapted from a novel by Herman Raucher, which was based on the Kafka story. In addition to the professional adaptations of the Kafka piece, there are several amateur videos posted on YouTube, which attest the the story's enduring popularity beyond required high school reading (which is where I first became aware of it). Watermelon Man is worth seeing as well--it's very dated, but Godfrey Cambridge is very funny, and he is joined by the inimitable Estelle Parsons, who plays his wife.

Anonymous said...

You can't paint stripes on a horse and call it a zebra any more than a white stripe on a cat makes it a skunk (read pepe le pew.)
The outside appearance doesn't necessarily satisfy the inner self nor does a few days or weeks of research in another skin constitute alignment with that skin... Especially when you can change back.

Anonymous said...

Hamlet/Spamlet, I've never been able to get through that play in any form, including the Classic comic version. However, I do agree with Harold Bloom's assessment of Shakespeare and his place in the creation of the modern world and its persona. For example, no Shakespeare no Freud.

The play's the thing.

Author said...

To 12:24 pm--yes, this experiment was flawed yet fascinating--like most "passing" projects. In a couple of weeks, I will take a look at another white person who passed during the modern civil rights era--Grace Halsell--stay tuned.

Nat--Olivier's Hamlet is the most Freudian one I've ever seen--the kiss Gertrude plants on him is soooo incestuous that my students never fail to be a little bit freaked out by it. Bloom is right (about that--haha).

Anonymous said...

Hi Rebecca,
How about now? Do you think black people and white people can share their joy? Is there a need to go 'undercover' to understand each other? I know a lot of "black" people who are as white as me, who identify as black. I know people who have as many white relatives as black, and sometimes more, who identify as black. I guess what I'm asking is: What makes a person "black" in America today?

Author said...

To Anonymous at 11:12 am,

What a question. Instead of attempting to give my take here, I'll write a longer post. Thanks for asking.


Anonymous said...

I wonder if it's how you are raised in your primary family home. What cultural influences do you have? And what about the little black DYFS kids that are now being raised by white gay parents?

And how many different ways are there to be "black"?

This is a big subject, the more I think about it. I'd love to hear your take on it.