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JOHN HOWARD GRIFFIN:
MAKING THE CHOICE TO MAKE HISTORY
Professor Carl Bean
November 3, 1998
Being black and in the South in 1959 could only be described as hopeless frustration. Absolute and unbending segregation plagued the South (Branch, pp. 272-311; Williams, pp. 37-90). At this time, the Civil Rights Movement was well under way (Branch, p. 272). Leaders of The Movement such as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, and Rosa Parks became, and still are, household names. A name with which we are not as familiar, however, is John Howard Griffin, author of Black Like Me. Griffin was a white journalist who subjected himself to a medical treatment that temporarily changed his skin color so that he appeared to be a black person rather than a white person. For six weeks, Griffin traveled throughout the South documenting his encounters as he presented himself as the same person he had always been but with a different skin color. His experiences were then and even today are thought to be severely troubling because he exposed the South’s disgusting brutality and inhumanity when it came to segregation and discrimination. By temporarily circumventing his ascribed status, John Howard Griffin crossed a racial bridge in a way that enlightened us all to the vast difficulties associated with being a minority in this ostensibly free culture as documented in his 1962 novel Black Like Me.
At the time of the experiment, John Howard Griffin lived in Mansfield, Texas, with his wife and two children. As a journalist for Sepia, a black-owned magazine, Griffin was selected by the members of the magazine’s management to enact a scheme they had devised to have a journalist “go underground” as a black person and report firsthand on the experiences encountered in everyday life by a black person. George Levitan, owner of the magazine, provided funding for this experiment – covering the expenses for the pigmentation-altering medical treatments to which Griffin agreed to subject himself and the expenses required to enable Griffin to travel throughout the South in search of experiences as a black man. Levitan agreed to cover these expenses in return for the magazine receiving rights to be the first to publish the articles that were to be written by Griffin as a result of his experiences as a black person. Both Levitan and Griffin knew that perilous risks lay ahead for Griffin. They both knew that Griffin would experience discrimination in public facilities (for instance, being required to sit at the back of city buses and being required to drink from “coloreds only” drinking fountains) and in eating facilities (for instance, being required to sit at “coloreds only” lunch counters [Williams, pp. 130-131]). Members of the magazine’s management predicted that Griffin also would be the target of ignorant hate groups. Despite the anticipation of being required to use segregated facilities and despite the predictions of becoming a target of hatred, Griffin resolutely proceeded according to the newly designed plan.
White people have often been able to sympathize with the plight of black people. However, prior to the experiences of Griffin, white people had never been able to empathize with the plight of black people – that is, to truly experience what it is like to live a day in a black man’s skin. Empathy is the ability to experience the world from another person’s point of view. It involves setting aside your own opinions and for a moment taking on the other person’s opinions. Empathy allows you to actually experience the feelings another person has – to know their fear, joy, sadness, and so on. Empathizing allows you to experience the other person’s perception – in essence to become the other person temporarily. When we empathize, we genuinely care about his or her well being (Adler and Towne, p. 117). With sympathy you feel compassion for the other person’s situation, but with empathy you have a personal sense of what that situation is like. Sympathy lacks the identification that comes with empathy. When you sympathize, it is still the other person’s happiness or sorrow, but when you empathize, it is your own happiness or sorrow – at least momentarily (Adler and Towne, pp. 118-119).
John Howard Griffin was the first white person to
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Black Like Me, John Howard Griffin, Griffin, African-American Civil Rights Movement
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