Tuesday, November 13, 2007

On the Book Shelf- John Howard Griffin

When our Australian house guest first described the plot of the 1960 "Black Like Me," by John Howard Griffin, it sounded like a bad Saturday Night Live Skit. A white novelist & civil rights activist darkens his skin through medical treatments, shaves his head, and then explores life as an African-American in the Deep South for seven weeks. I was totally repulsed by the idea that a white male could attempt to capture "the black experience." A series of coincidences brought this book into my hands. When I started reading it during a nursing session with my finicky, not quite so newborn, I found I couldn't put it down. I have no idea if this book is still in print or widely available, but if you do find it- it's well worth a read.

The book is a nuanced, anguished cry against segregation by a white, Southern Catholic. I didn't find the book an insight into the totality of "the black experience." How is that even possible? What I did find was a first-hand account of the daily indignities of being African-American during the period of segregation. Once Griffin skin color changes, he can no longer easily find a rest-room or a drink of water. The African-American restroom facilities and cafes are spread out New Orleans. Any trip, requires detailed planning to avoid being left in dangerous, uncomfortable situations.

The precariousness of life is always evident. A bus driver refuses to let Griffith off the bus. When he rings for his stop, the driver slams the door in his face. He's forced to go an extra eight blocks until a group of white riders wish to depart. Griffith can't find a store willing to cash his $20 travelers check during a bank holiday. He goes from store to store receiving rude treatment until he happens into a Catholic book store. Because "of the Catholic stand on racism" the store keeper warmly receives him and cashes his check.(page 51)

Again and again, the Catholic faith provides an oasis of calm during the fury of race relations in the South. I was surprised by this, having studied how terrible the race riots were between Irish and African-American in Boston during the 1970s when the federal courts ordered desegregation of the public schools through busing. At least in New Orleans, however, the large presence of Catholics seems to have helped ease racial tensions.

For example, the author find sanctuary after a particularly bad trip to Mississippi after an African-American lynching case (this is 1960!) by resting in a Trappist Monastery. Here is Griffith's account

"I arrived at the Trappist monastery. . , the contrast was almost too great to be borne. 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. They sought to make themselves conform ever more perfectly to God's will, whereas outside I had seen mostly men who sought to make God's will conform to their wretched prejudices. Here men sought their center in God, whereas outside they sought it in themselves. The difference was transforming."

Griffith is so shocked by the difference, that he asks one of the monks to talk to him about his experiences.

"we discussed the religiosity of the racists. I told him how often I had heard them invoke God, and then some passage from the Bible, and urge all who might be faltering in their racial prejudice to "Pray brother with all your hear before you decide to let them ... into our schools and cafes."

The monk laughed. Didn't Shakespeare say something about 'every fool in error can find a passage of Scripture to back him up?' He knew his religious bigots."

"Is there any place in the Bible that justifies it-even by a stretch of the imagination, Father?"

"Biblical scholars don't stretch their imaginations-at least reputable ones don't," he said. "Wait a moment, I have something you must read." The monk then brings Griffith the book Scholasticism & Politics by Jacques Maritain.

Maritain describes the religiosity of the racists in this way

"God is invoked . . . and He is invoked against the God of the spirit, of intelligence, and love-excluding and hating this God. What an extraordinary spiritual phenomenon this is: people believe in God yet do not know God. The idea of God is affirmed and at the same time it is disfigured and perverted."(page 89-91).

I don't pretend that all who call themselves Catholic are free of the taint of racism. Still it is affirming to read in a contemporary account of the early days of the freedom rides, the Montgomery bus boycott, and the birth of the civil rights movement, so many examples of ordinary Catholics acting with charity towards African-Americans. It's reassuring to know that the "official position" of the Catholic religion has always been unity, equality and the urging of humanity to uplift itself from the social sins of the times.

May the Holy Spirit inspire all of us walk in greater love and dignity.