As a college Freshman in 1962, Mom drove me to my dorm at the University of Kansas in Lawrence. I vividly remember her saying “I don’t care who your roommate is as long as he ain’t a nigger.” The white townsfolk in our community used the “n…..” word when frequently referring to Negroes. Back to college. Guess what? My roommate was a Negro from Texas. When he came into our dorm room for the first time, I’m certain he could see my disappointment. I was embarrassed for both of us. It was obvious I was a bigot.
In our community, bigotry was ingrained at a very early age. I recall asking for a Daisy Air BB gun. Mom said they were too dangerous, but Tommy Crozier across the alley had one. We were playing in his backyard when he let me hold it. I was so excited! That day I shot a black kid in a neighboring yard in the forehead. I thought I was in big trouble as he grabbed his head and said he was going to tell. Though he apparently wasn’t hurt that bad, at least not physically, I have been plagued that I would have done that. Telling this story does not absolve me of my sin, but it symbolizes the bigotry that was imparted to following generations of white bigots in our town.
Shame on me if I had remained a bigot. Sometime during my Freshman year at college I changed. Was it the group I hung with… Jim Burgess, a black kid from Kansas City, Missouri was part of the group? Was it because I had a crush on a black girl? My parents would have been pissed. Was it due to reading Black Like Me? Probably these and other events and relationships led to my release from being a bigot.
John Howard Griffin Wrote Black Like Me. In 1959 as an experiment, John Howard Griffin, a white man, changed the pigmentation of his skin in order to live as a Negro in the deep South. As a black man Griffin encountered the same racism a Negro would, and was often denied a glass of water. He was unable to use restrooms that he could have as a white man. Griffin wrote Black Like Me as an account of that life. I was dumbfounded, and grew to empathize with the plight of blacks in America. Unlike Mom, I stopped using the “n…..” word.
I recently reread Black Like Me, the “50th Anniversary Edition,” which included several sections that the original did not.
In 1979, twenty years after his trip, John Howard Griffin wrote:
“In Black Like Me, I tried to establish one simple fact, which was to reveal the insanity of a situation where a man is judged by his skin color, by his philosophical “accident” – rather than by who he is in his humanity.”
As a result of his first-hand exposure of bigotry, Griffin became a part of the Civil Rights Movement and deserves a seat on the podium along with other notables such as Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr., and Malcolm X. Black Like Me generated a lot of controversy. Griffin was ridiculed. He was severely beaten by the KKK and left for dead. That did not deter him from continuing to write and to lecture. At one point, Black Like Me was banned; however, it has prevailed as required reading at various levels of education.
Read Black Like Me or reread it with an open mind and allow yourself to be empathetic. Move away from being a bigot and be tolerable of all races and religions.