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Gilbert: Black Like Me

In the novel To Kill a Mockingbird, published in 1960, Atticus Finch tells his daughter, Scout, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view... until you climb into his skin and walk around in it."

John Howard Griffin sought to do precisely that. In November 1959, he took medication that darkened his white skin to deep brown, and exchanged, quote, “his privileged life as a Southern white man for the disenfranchised world of an unemployed black man.” The diary he kept during his travels through the segregated Deep South formed the basis of his bestselling book Black Like Me, which was published in 1961. It made him a national celebrity.

Even before taking on this project, Griffin knew the potential for evil within the human heart: in World War II he had served as a medic in the French underground smuggling Jewish children to England.

Black Like Me, is the universal story - he writes - “of men who destroy the souls and bodies of other men (and in the process destroy themselves)... It traces the changes that occur to heart and body and intelligence when a so-called first-class citizen [takes on] second-class citizenship.”

His experience has been called “a radical experiment in human empathy.” While it’s true that his experience wasn’t exactly that of an African American man, it did get him closer to feeling what others feel, and his book helps some of us better understand others as well – which is what good books, fiction and nonfiction, often do.

Griffin’s “deepest shock” was something very simple, very obvious - but then many truths are very simple. It was his “gradual realization that [his] change [in appearance] was not a matter of [mere] ‘inconvenience’ but rather a total change in living.”

Now, more than a half-century later, with virtually every cell phone also a video camera, incidents are more likely to be recorded and then shared widely over the internet. Americans now have a new way to get at least a glimpse of realities many might otherwise never witness, let alone experience. Contrary to what we sometimes think, understanding is not always sweetness and light. Sometimes it leaves us both wiser and sadder. But many would say that that’s better than being what singer Jackson Browne calls “a happy idiot” - unthinking and unfeeling, not understanding, or even worse, misunderstanding.

Peter Gilbert is executive director of the Vermont Humanities Council.
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