Color of My Skin: John Howard Griffin

Color of My Skin: John Howard Griffin

I Was Blind and Now I See

If an American, because his skin is dark, cannot eat lunch in a restaurant open to the public, if he cannot send his children to the best public school available, if he cannot vote for the public officials who will represent him, if, in short, he cannot enjoy the full and free life which all of us want, then who among us would be content to have the color of his skin changed and stand in his place? Who among us would then be content with the counsels of patience and delay? – JFK, June 11, 1963

I was most interested in listening to an interview with Morgan Atkinson who did a film, Uncommon Vision, about John Howard Griffin who in 1961 wrote Black Like Me, which along with MLKJR’S Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story (1958), The Measure of a Man (’59), and, of course, Uncle Tom’s Cabin had such a great effect on many of us in the days of the Civil Rights Movement. JHG wrote his book “to shake up the status quo.”

John Griffin, “looking for that divine spark that unites us all,” traveled to France at age 15 for study and adventure. He was in medical school at 19 when the war broke out and he found himself working with the Resistance until booted out of the country. He served then with the Americans; a blast gradually blinded him in 1945. When he returned to civilian life he was a writer, rancher, and photographer. Surprisingly his eyesight came back. He wrote that in some ways, it was more difficult to return to the world of being able to see than it was to adapt to being blind. He loved classical music where he found some of the harmony he was so thirsty for. He became a Catholic, a convert just like Thomas Merton, with whom he shared his love of photography, social justice, the curiosity not to be too easily satisfied or comfortable, to be in the wonder that ultimate truth could not be simplistically stated, and that one must experience deep truth for himself or herself. He would later work on a biography of Merton (He joked that it was his “monk like me” period since he immersed himself in life at Gethsemane). Both he and Merton had the heart of a Zen poet.

Silver-blue rain is softly soaking our lovely San Gabriel Valley as I write and think of JHG’s friend, Thomas Merton.

“Think of it,” Merton wrote one rainy night, “all that speech pouring down, selling nothing, judging nobody… What a thing it is to sit absolutely alone, in the forest, at night, cherished by this wonderful, unintelligible, perfectly innocent speech, the most comforting speech in the world, the talk that rain makes by itself all over the ridges… Nobody started it, nobody is going to stop it. It will talk as long as it wants, this rain. As long as it talks I am going to listen.”

John was first influenced to check out Catholicism as a youngster in France when he was exposed to Gregorian Chant in 1946. He was uplifted by his experience. Oddly, he first heard the chants at an insane asylum where it was used to soothe and perhaps even transform some of the patients. When he was blind, he learned more about Gregorian Chant and visited the abbey of Solesmes in France. John was fascinated by the monks, both intellectually and by the way they lived. He uttered what he called the great “Yes!” after his years of searching for a focus for his spiritual life.

John Griffin taught us empathy, walking in another’s moccasins, “a total change in living,” through his courageous story of changing his skin color from white to black and at the end of his six-week experiment, changing from black to white and back again. Stories teach deeply; Indian philosophers called them lilas, the play of God which reveal our sacred humanity and also our shadows, “the universal story of men who destroy the souls and bodies of other men (and in the process destroy themselves) for reasons neither really understands, the story of the persecuted, the defrauded, the feared and detested.” John Griffin showed me my own prejudices, even against myself. And he pointed beyond that to the inviolable inner goodness of each person, no matter his or her race, religion, or sexual preference.

John talks about staying in a shanty with a humble black family: “Supper was on the makeshift table. It consisted entirely of large yellow beans cooked in water… I praised the children until the father’s tired face animated with pride. He looked at the children the way another looks at some rare painting or treasured gem… Closed into the two rooms with the soft light of two kerosene lamps, the atmosphere changed. The outside world, outside standards disappeared. They were somewhere beyond in the vast darkness… “

Once when JHG was experiencing the lack of respect shown him as a black-skinned person, he visited a two thousand acre wooded Trappist monastery, entering “as the monks were chanting Vespers… their voices floated to me. It was a shock, like walking from the dismal swamps into sudden brilliant sunlight. Here all was peace, all silence except for the chanted prayers. Here men know nothing of hatred.”

Black Like Me sold 12 million copies, but John Griffin died virtually penniless. He wasn’t smart about money, but certainly had wonderful artistic successes and is to this day a great influence for social justice and for his insight that “there is no other.” He was bedridden the last three years of his life and wrote that if one could transcend the suffering of being ill, he or she could develop a limitless capacity for compassion.

When JHG concluded his experiment, he “felt strangely sad… almost as though I were fleeing my share of his (the black person’s) pain and heartache.” Today, impelled by the poignancy of our intimately-immediately interconnected world, we are encouraged by JHG to create an inclusive world, touching each other with kindness, humor and wisdom.