Last week our local library had its annual book sale. I always like to go and pick up a pile of used books cheap. Often I find books that I would never look for in a book store or library. Sometimes I pick up some real classics that I have somehow failed to read.
One that I found this time, was BLACK LIKE ME by John Howard Griffin. I don’t know how I had missed reading it long ago. There are many books on my shelves that have to do with race relations and conflict, but this one slipped by me.
The book is a true narrative by a white man who became black. Griffin was a writer who darkened his skin by the use of drugs and dye and entered the world of the African American. The year was 1959, near the beginnings of the civil rights’ movement. The place was the deep south: Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. The book was published in 1960 and is still in print. Griffin was the first white man to attempt to write from the black man’s perspective. He opened white people’s minds to the horrors of Jim Crow in the deep south.
Why hadn’t I read this book before? Perhaps it was because good Christian white folks (even in Michigan where I was raised) didn’t read stuff like this.
I grew up in what would have been considered in those days to be a reasonably integrated town. I went to high school with black students and had friendly acquaintances with many. But I didn’t live near them or work with them. And I definitely didn’t go to church with black people! “De facto segregation,” they call it nowadays. There was an underlying racism that usually didn’t come to the surface. It was kind of like sex. Everybody knew about it and most people practiced it, but nice people usually didn’t talk about it.
Though I had heard of them, my first exposure to Jim Crow traditions was in 1955. I was in Parris Island, South Carolina with my Marine Reserve company. We had a Saturday leave to go to Beaufort and 4 or 5 of us young white men took the bus. Being Michigan boys, we just automatically sat down on the back seats. We couldn’t understand why the bus driver glared at us so harshly, until a black lady got on. She looked puzzled and nervous and almost got back off. Finally she sat down toward the back, but 3 or 4 rows in front of us. The driver intensified his glare. When we figured out what was happening, we simply thought it was funny and had a good laugh at what we considered just a stupid tradition. It never occurred to us how humiliating and degrading it was to the woman.
I moved to Texas in 1966. Here, though I saw more blatant racism than in Michigan, I also saw efforts to make things right. I have seen tremendous improvements and changes in the last 41 years.
Yet I have noticed that racism continues, not only in the south, but also in my home state.
I taught for many years in a multi-ethnic Bible college. The original purpose of the college was to provide solid biblical and theological education to members of minority communities, especially the African American community. I have been exposed to racial prejudice in both directions and could tell many stories. Though this college has been tremendously used by God to bring about racial reconciliation, bigotry lingers, even there.
Why is racism still so widespread, even among those who claim to be followers of Christ? Why do we find even godly people who show great wisdom in other areas showing such narrow thinking? Why do I catch myself having these feelings?
-- Well, first of all, there is the fact that we are sinners. If we know Christ by faith we are new creatures, but the old “me” is still active. Read Paul’s lament in Romans 7:15-23.
-- While we may be more likely to admit to ourselves our other sins and sinful thinking, somehow we do a good job of deceiving ourselves in this matter. I can’t count the times I’ve heard someone say, “I’m not prejudiced, but …” (I’ve even said it more than once.)
-- For some reason we distrust anyone or anything that is different. I suppose this goes back at least as far as the tower of Babel.
-- We like to see ourselves as the standard and judge everyone else by that standard. This is the sin of arrogance.
-- We like to see our actions which should be done in love, as a sort of condescension toward perceived inferiors.
Many will tell me that it’s really not that way any more, that we have progressed beyond that sort of thinking. I disagree.
I’ve never been black, either like Mr. Griffin or in any other way. I can’t get inside the mind or the skin of another of a different race. But I have had somewhere around 25 years of dealing with people of other races. I’ve heard statements of pain and resentment. I’ve seen pain on the faces of those whom I have hurt, even when I didn’t realize I was hurting someone until it was too late. I have also felt the pain of being distrusted because I am white.
But I have also felt the love of those who dared to cross racial barriers and I hope they have felt my love. I also pray that those who have distrusted me because of my race have learned to see the love of Christ in me.
(Also read RACE.)