In my column for The Loop 21, I revisited John Howard Griffin’s Black Like Me 50 years after he published his account of going undercover as a black man in the South. I was particularly interested in the way contemporary critics treated the project, which has queasy elements of blackface read today, even if it produced interesting moral revelations:
That basic challenge for the project isn’t something that’s simply evident now. In 1964, Brendan Gill wrote a scathing review in the New Yorker of the movie based on Griffin’s novel, arguing:
He is…rather simple-minded, for though he intends to turn his findings into a series of sensational pieces in a national magazine, he considers his ‘passing’ less a journalistic stunt than a self-imposed spiritual ordeal, the harsh consequences of which, in middle age and with many years of reporting behind him, he surely had little reason to be astonished by…he makes considerable trouble for his new-found Negro friends in the course of a masquerade that necessarily takes greater advantage of them than it does of whites, and that, in the end, merely confirms what has been a fact accepted for generations, however little it may have been acted on: that life for the Negro in a small Southern town is made tolerable only by his extraordinary feats of accommodation, most of them continuously humiliating.
But Dan Wakefield, in a New York Times review of the book published on October 22, 1961, suggested that such understanding wasn’t nearly as widespread as the New Yorker would suggest four years later. He wrote:
The daily indignities of living as a Negro in America are not ‘news’ and are seldom written about. Dramatic outbreaks of racial conflict make the front-page stories, but in order to begin to understand them—and what lies behind them—it is necessary first to be aware of the routine torments of discrimination as they plague the everyday life of particular individuals.
If fifty years has convinced some people that putting on blackface is an innocuous act, it hasn’t lessened the desire to see what happens when white and black Americans switch roles. FX repeated Griffin’s experiment and fused it with reality television in 2006 in a six-part series, Black.White., that not only had a black and white family exchange races, but had them live together in a more sedate version of a Real World house.
It may be easier to be a tourist in someone else’s life today than it was during John Howard Griffin’s expedition, and there may still be uncomfortable truths to be gleaned from those experiences. But all these experiments assume that visiting another country—even if it’s your own—will actually teach you what it means to live there. Sometimes the greatest possible act of sympathy is to acknowledge that you can’t understand the entirety of someone else’s experiences.
There’s something interesting about the fact that we’ve gone from blackface as an act of sympathy with a despised class to blackface as act of cultural appropriation. But gaining cultural capital doesn’t mean you’ve beaten discrimination. And assigning cultural capital can be a form of treating people as a monolith rather than individuals.