Black Like Me and Racial Ambiguity
My American grandfather was an unapologetic racist. Pure and simple. I know this because when I was twelve, during a heated conversation at the dinner table, he used the “n” word. I left the table, refusing to eat with him, attempting to disown him. My gentle hearted grandmother Catherine followed me:”Don’t take it so hard. He had some real rough experiences in the south. He was beat up real bad by some colored folks.” Well, gee, I wonder why. There has to be more to that story. Everybody has an excuse for bad behavior. Everybody has a reason for hating someone. For making someone feel like the “other” or “less than.”
In spite of or regardless of the racist proclivities of her father, my mom ended up marrying a man from China. A man of color. And, I might add, she put the excellent book by John Howard Griffin, Black Like Me, into my sweaty little bookwormy adolescent hands one summer. Thank you Mom. A thousand thanks. Have you read this book? If not, I urge you to put down what you are doing and find a copy.
It starts out like this:
“For years the idea had haunted me, and that night it returned more insistently than ever. If a white man became a Negro in the Deep South, what adjustments would he have to make?What is is like to experience discrimination based on skin color, something over which one has no control?”
Published in 1960, Black Like Me details the experience of a white journalist who was so consumed with the above question that he sought the advice of a dermatologist and temporarily altered the pigmentation of his own skin through radiation and medication treatments designed to alleviate vitiligo (a disease that causes loss of skin pigmentation). Following these uncomfortable treatments, and augmenting his new identity with makeup and a shaved head, Griffin proceeded to travel through various cities in the south, beginning with New Orleans.
By the end of his story, we learn that once Griffin’s journey is complete, chronicled and widely shared through public media, Griffin and his family become targets of hostility within their own hometown of Mansfield, Texas. This leads to their eventual decision to sell their homes and move to Mexico. They had to LEAVE THE COUNTRY to escape the repurcussions that arose from simply shining a light on racist conditions that existed in the segregated south. After receiving thousands of letters, the author concluded that many conscientious white citizens were more fearful of their racist neighbors than anything else. He also includes poignant anecdotes of his encounters with black individuals he met along the way, most who were deeply committed to forgiveness, determined that the proper response to racism is love, not hate. That the way to change is through peaceful, legal channels.
As I re read this book today, while so many of us grieve over lives tragically lost in South Carolina, with the Confederate flag waving high and proud over the state’s capitol, I ask myself, what has changed during my lifetime of half a century?
Within our own home, my family has always lived in a state of racial ambiguity and blurred racial identity. We have ancestors from China, Japan, Germany, France, Wales, Poland, Ireland and Russia. That we know of. My husband’s adoptive daughter is of Black and Japanese heritage. I have uncles who each fought on opposite sides of the Korean War. My daughter, a new graduate with a degree in anthropology, asserts that race is a myth, a concept that is not supported by biological science, but is rather, a cultural construct, determined by an individual’s physical appearance. But even this mere categorization doesn’t account for the hatred, the scorn of other, the assertion of superiority or inferiority of one category to the other. It’s all so deeply troubling.
This morning I listened to the statements made by families of those who were slain at the African Methodist Church in Charlestown. I couldn’t help but weep as I listened to their sincere expressions of grief that were interwoven by the commitment to forgive, to not return hate with hatred but with love. I am thoroughly in awe of them.
I sit here and wonder how long it will take for a real change of heart to occur. My dad would say, “It’s up to you kids now, to change the world. ” He said that on his deathbed, toasting my daughter and her collegiate cohorts. “ What I’d give to have my future ahead of me, “ he said, “ But I had my time, now it’s your turn. The future is up to you!”
That shooter at the church was only 21 years old. Our country, our world is crying out for healing. And it is days like this that I miss my kind-hearted, felonious miscegenistic parents something fierce.
Photo of Mom and Dad on a date in the late forties, also in Chicago.