Tuesday, January 01, 2013

'Black Like Me'

There are times I feel that my public education denied me important parts of my education. This is one of them.

"Black Like Me" is the true account of journalist John Howard Griffin and his journey through the South as a black man during the days of jim crow justice and segregation. Through a combination of melatonin pills, ultraviolet light treatments and a dye, Griffin made himself appear to be black, in order to better understand racism and how it affected society. The idea alone is incredible. That someone actually did this and then wrote about it, is nothing short of mind-boggling.

Griffin's book is written as a series of journal entries detailing his experiences as a black man in the South. Much of this details things that are textbook segregation: not being able to eat at white restaurants, not being allowed to drink from white water fountains, and not even being allowed to use white restrooms. What raises this above mere textbook knowledge is the immediacy of the narrative. Reading the book, you get a real sense of the indignity of having to walk for more than a mile just to go the bathroom, of not being given a drink of water on a scorching hot day, and of being subjected to what Griffin calls "the hate stare."

Beyond the obvious racism and racist attitudes, there were a few things revealed in the book that I found disturbing. One is that, in the afterword, Griffin notes that once the Civil Rights Act was passed, a number of white Civil Rights advocates felt that the work was finished. Blacks were guaranteed the right to vote, segregation was over, and things were looking up, What else was needed? Further demands by blacks for advancement and opportunity were met with incredulity and anger.

Right now there is a lawsuit headed to the U.S. Supreme Court, calling for a repeal of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which ensured that states that had practiced segregation and jim crow justice would need to receive approval from the U.S. Department of Justice before they made any change to their voting laws. The argument is that, with a black president now elected to a second term, surely we have put this sordid chapter of our past behind us. At the same time, a number of state legislatures have tried to pass voter ID laws in a sometimes brazen attempt to give Mitt Romney the upperhand in the election; and other states have gerrymandered their voting districts so that a Democratic-leaning state consistently elects Republican representatives. (Stop and think about the racial implications of this.)

Have we really come as far as we think we have? The white majority thought we were fine in the 1950s, thought we were fine in the 1960s and thinks we're fine now. I'd suggest that the white majority doesn't really know what it's like for the black minority, and should find out from the people who do know.

Secondly, Griffin had some illuminating thoughts on black achievement and the attitudes Southern whites had on that subject. As he traveled the South, Griffin noted the substandard living conditions many black families had, and noted that many whites attributed this to the overall shiftlesness of black culture, and the lack of desire on the part of blacks to get ahead and achieve for themselves.Of course, at the same time, blacks routinely were being denied economic opportunities, funding for their schools was low, and their overall access to culture in the form of theater, concerts, and even libraries was minimal. And why should the wealth be taken from hard-working whites, and given to people who haven't worked for it?

It's not much of a stretch to see some disturbing parallels between those attitudes from the late 1950s and views recently expressed in the contemporary political dialogue about the 46 percent, and about people who benefit from safety net programs like Medicare, Social Security, and unemployment. In the past 25 years, we've seen the wealth of our nation aggregate into the hands of an increasingly small group of people. Right now public schools and teachers are under tremendous fire, and the Republican Party has made a lot of noise about freeloaders trying to live off the hard work of others.

Have we really come as far as we think we have?

Right now we're at a crossroads in American education, where our standards are being adjusted to stress nonfiction reading, to "improve work-readiness" and to make us "more competitive in the global job market" and a lot of other things like that. There are a lot of books that are being cut from the national standards that shouldn't be, like "To Kill a Mockingbird." This is another book that should be part of our national curriculum, because it should be a part of our national conversation.

We have made some progress since the 1950s in terms of race, but we still have more to go. As we make that progress, "Black Like Me" should be a part of our discussion.

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