Sunday, March 11, 2007

the john howard griffin connection, part one

“The world has always been saved by an Abrahamic minority.... There have always been a few who, in times of great trouble, became keenly aware of the underlying tragedy: the needless destruction of humanity.” – John Howard Griffin

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 the age of 15, Griffin left the United States to study in France, receiving certificates in French, literature, music, and medicine. As a musicologist he specialized in medieval music, particularly Gregorian chant. As a medical intern, he conducted experiments in the use of music therapy for the criminally insane.

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


  1. Beth...
    I've been a fan of his for years and his Merton photography book a main staple of my library and influence on my photography. I knew almost nothing of the info in this blog. Thank you for it!

  2. Really interesting stuff Beth. I've never heard of anyone being blind for such a long period of time only to regain their sight. Wow.

    I can imagine Griffin and Merton having many interesting conversations. Was he ever at Gethsemani assisting the monks with Gregorian chant?

  3. Not that I know of, Bryan. He did visit (and photograph) MErton at Gethsemani. In 1967 he brought Jacques Maritain to Gethsemani to meet with Merton. Maritain was very influential to both Merton and Griffin.

  4. Thanks Beth. You're always a great source of info. on Merton!


  5. Wonderful resume of JHG's life and vocation and artistic temperament! I had forgotten about his loss of sight and then recovery of such.

    I love Merton's photo of God! The only known one, too.


The Stuff of Contemplation (Joan Chittister)

Thomas Merton, Trappist, died December 10, 1968 Thomas Merton entered the Abbey of Gethsemane in Bardstown, Kentucky, at the age of twenty-s...