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For those who
don’t know the references, Black like Me was a line from
a Langston Hughes poem. As the title of a book, by John Howard Griffin, it documented the travels of Griffin through part of the U.S. Deep South, in 1960, having undergone skin treatments,
to have the pigmentation appearance of being an Afro-American. This
eventually resulted in mass-media interviews, on prime time. The
result was a searing look into the conscience of the racial situation
in the South.
gripping story is offset, by title, to the “White like Me” essay
published in The New Yorker magazine on the subject of The
New York Times writer Anatole Broyard, after his death, when it was revealed that he came
from a “black” New Orleans background. The point in challenging some of the
perceptions in that story is that
this information was presented as unknown in his surroundings, and as if his style—which did not “blurt out
the news”—was something sinister. (His friend Milton Klonsky had said, “There are those who compose and those who
blurt.” Anatole was well aware of the difference.) I have outlined
on the previous page objections, based on the fact that I and many others knew
this information and that it was not avoided or presented histrionically
among such friends.
Now, the crossover (short
but resultful) in Black Like Me
was undertaken for reasons as follows—because (said the writer,
p. 7-8): “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? . . .
“How else except
by becoming a Negro could a white man hope to learn the truth? Though
we lived side by side throughout the South, communication between
the two races had simply ceased to exist.” This was in 1959. So
he went to Canal Street in New Orleans, and to Montgomery, Alabama, and a few other chosen places. This then resulted
in the documentation of the “junkheap of second-class citizenship”
in the deep parts of the South, if to be black. It would follow that to leave this environment and become
an editor for The New York Times is rather nothing short
of the off-odds miracle that allowed Helen
Keller to enter the world of human expression after being
closed off, from birth, by the defect of being deaf. Any such rise
above circumstances is always a story of courage. It is our loss
that Anatole Broyard did not live to tell it that way,
nor choose to, until the surprise of death no longer left him that
moment of choosing for himself. And the
posthumous report, which certainly he had to expect, did not send
him running to defense stations, to prepare a justification. He
knew such an exposure would come. He left no words of comment on
it. It is very hard to believe that the material reported by me was known to no other living persons. We always surround statements
with our own ISSUES—unless we try not to. Better the once-spoken
comment that he wanted to talk to people who treated him as an equal.
This is a general human issue. He took it outside race. Whether
he made it clear in his writing (which he may have), he made it
clear to himself and communicated it. And I was there, to listen.
Below are some concrete facts, left out of the printed story. Also,
it is the nature of some people be afraid
of what others think. It is the nature of others not to be afraid,
except under certain circumstances. I experienced Anatole Broyard in the latter light—not afraid.
Griffin, J. H. (1960). Black Like Me.
New York: A Signet Book
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