Somewhere in my early teenage years (1962?), between the Laura Ingalls Wilder books and “Gone with the Wind”, I read “Black Like Me”, by John Howard Griffin. It was the most profound book to have thus far come to my attention. A white man deliberately darkened his skin and then wrote about his experiences while traveling the Deep South as a black man. This book, more than any other, ignited my passion for social justice.
John Howard Griffin was what is known as a “Renaissance Man” – a person with broad intellectual interests who is accomplished in both the arts and the sciences. Born in Texas in 1920, he was 5 years younger than Merton. His mother was a classically trained pianist and his father an Irish tenor and radio personality.
At age 19, Griffin began serving as a medic in the French Resistance Army, evacuating Austrian Jews to safety. He then served 39 months with the United States Army Air Corps in the South Seas during World War II. Caught in a Japanese bombing raid, his eyes began to deteriorate.
From 1946 – 1957 John Howard Griffin was blind. He returned to Texas to live with his family and raise cattle. He wrote 5 novels during this time. He became a Catholic. He associated himself with a Carmelite monastery, desperately seeking some kind of “spiritual union with God”. French Catholic philospher, Jacques Maritain, was his spiritual mentor.
In 1957, sight was miraculously returned to Griffin. A blockage of the circulation of blood to the optic nerve suddenly opened and he saw his wife and 2 children for the first time. He began photographing what he could see. His most acclaimed photographs are his portraits.
In 1959 Griffin traveled to New Orleans. There, with the help of drugs, dyes, and radiation, he darkened his skin, shaved his head, and “crossed the line into a country of hate, fear, and hopelessness – the country of the American Negro.” For two months he traveled through the Deep South, later publishing his observations in a magazine series and the widely acclaimed book Black Like Me.
Though the book received many prestigious awards, reaction was also hostile. Griffin's body was hung in effigy on the main street of his town and his life was repeatedly threatened until he died in 1980.
See also: the john howard griffin connection, part two