John Howard Griffin
Author of Black Like Me

J.H. Griffin, forefinger on templeGratefulness for our many blessings flowers forth when we "walk a mile in the shoes" of people with different life experience than ours. John Howard Griffin spent his life trying on many such pairs of shoes, developing active compassion for others.  From learning to help the mentally disabled with music therapy, to helping Jews in France escape during the Nazi occupation in WWII, to maintaining close contact with Solomon Islanders during his Air Force deployment, Griffin understood the fallacy of treating people as “the intrinsic other.”  War injuries caused him to become totally blind, an experience he used to enlighten others about blindness.  His radical empathy also inspired him to darken his skin with medication and dye, experience firsthand the degradations of prejudice, and write Black Like Me, which helps open our eyes to racial injustices.
-- Margaret Wakeley

"I go to live on the other side of the river, hoping to find that it is no different from this side and that we can no longer justify demonizing man for such false reasons."

In 1959 John Howard 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.  Griffin’s effort to cross the color line was the most dramatic gesture in a life devoted to radical empathy.  But for Griffin, it was simply another exploration of the concern that preoccupied him throughout his life – the struggle to discover what it means, finally, to be a human being.

Born in Texas on June 16, 1920, Griffin was educated in France, where he studied medicine and music until the outbreak of World War II.  After the German occupation he helped run a network smuggling Jews out of the country and narrowly escaped arrest by the Gestapo.  He spent most of the war in military service in the South Pacific.  Toward the end of the war a nearby explosion impaired his vision and eventually left him completely blind.  The experience of blindness and severe illnesses that visited him throughout his life imposed a stark choice – either to give in to despair or to trust in some higher purpose.  “Tragedy,” he wrote, “is not in the condition but in man’s perception of the condition.”  Despite his handicap, Griffin went on to study music, married and raised a family, tried his hand at ranching, and wrote two novels.  The year his second novel was published he entered the Roman Catholic church.

Then in 1957 something miraculous happened.  A blockage of the circulation of blood to the optic nerve suddenly opened, restoring his sight.  He saw his wife and two young children for the first time.  For some years he had been studying theology, and in his journal he described the joy he felt in being able to read the Divine Office:  “The soul’s nourishment, the soul’s normalcy, sinking beyond the words to their innermost meaning, seeking and thirsting for it…This morning, then, the tired braid, the battered brain conceived the idea of reading the clear black type of the Office.  And therein found full reason and justification for seeing again.”

“One hopes that if one acts from a thirst for justice and suffers the consequences, then others who share one’s thirst may be spared the terror of disesteem and persecution.”

 With the return of his sight Griffin became aware of how much we do not see, of the way superficial appearances can serve as obstacles to true perception – especially in the illusion that allows us to regard our fellow humans as “the intrinsic other.”  Nowhere did this seem so true as in the case of American racism.  Yet Griffin was struck by the frequent challenge from black friends: “The only way you can know what it’s like is to wake up in my skin.”  He took these words to heart.  The result was the journey recorded in Black Like Me.

The book received and sustained enormous attention, though not all readers recognized it as a deeply spiritual work.  Griffin’s concerns went beyond a set of social conditions to the underlying disease of the soul.  His book was really a meditation on the effects of dehumanization, both for the persecuted and the persecutors themselves.  As he described it, he had changed nothing but the color of his skin – and yet that was everything.  Suddenly doors closed, smiles became frowns – or worse.  He discovered the hateful face that white Americans reserved for blacks; it was a devastating experience.  “Future historians,” he wrote later, “will be mystified that generations of us could stand in the midst of this sickness and never see it, never really feel how our System distorted and dwarfed human lives because these lives happened to inhabit bodies encased in a darker skin; and how, in cooperation with this system, it distorted and dwarfed our own lives in a subtle and terrible way.”

After his story was published, Griffin was exposed to a more personal form of hostility.  His body was hung in effigy on the main street of his town.  His life was repeatedly threatened.  Nevertheless he threw himself into a decade of tireless work on behalf of the growing civil rights movement.  Necessity forced him, much against his nature, into the role of activist.  “One hopes,” he wrote, “that if one acts from a thirst for justice and suffers the consequences, then others who share one’s thirst may be spared the terror of disesteem and persecution.”  And so he persevered with those who shared “the harsh and terrible understanding that somehow they must pit the quality of their love against the quality of hate roaming the world.”

For years Griffin suffered from a range of afflictions, some possibly induced by the skin treatments he had undergone years before.  He died (of “everything,” according to his wife) on September 8, 1980.

What finally was the meaning of his life?  “The world,” he once wrote, “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.”

Sincere thanks to Robert Ellsberg
for permission to use this chapter from his book All Saints: Daily Reflections on Saints, Prophets, and Witnesses From Our Time. "Since soon after it came out; I have used this book for daily spiritual reading and still find it inspiring." —Br. David

Additional Resources

See: Robert Bonazzi, Man in the Mirror:  John Howard Griffin and the Story of Black Like Me (Maryknoll, N.Y.:  Orbis, 1997); Bradford Daniel, ed., The John Howard Griffin Reader (Boston:  Houghton Mifflin, 1967).