Sunday, July 10, 2016

Black Like Me by John Howard Griffin: a review

Black Like MeBlack Like Me by John Howard Griffin
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is the first book I read about racism and it forever changed me. I was in ninth grade at Milburn Junior High. It was 1986. Thirty years ago. And yet I remember it vividly, and with awe.

In the 1950's, a white southern man--the author, John Howard Griffin--takes medication to darken his skin and goes undercover as a black man in the Deep South. This book is his chronicle of that journey. Highly recommended for anyone ready to open their eyes to the reality of racism.

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Five stars. If I could give it more stars, I would.

My English teacher had assigned the class to pick a book from a list of titles about our country's history. We read it and gave her an individual oral report. I was just glad we didn't have to stand up in front of the whole class and talk about it, since I was a shy awkward fifteen year old. All those eyes upon me. Staring at my big boobs. Or my acne. Or my thunder thighs. I preferred writing book reports, but if we had to do an oral report, at least it was just in front of the teacher and no one else. She was nice. One of the few people I liked seeing each day at that miserable school.

"You're the only student who picked this book, Becky," she said.

I remember this distinctly because it made me feel special. At the same time that I hated for people to look at me, I also hated to be ignored. I was just one more middle-class white girl among hundreds of other middle-class white kids at my school. It was the suburbs in the eighties. Homogeneity was in vogue. I was used to sitting in a room full of my classmates, being talked at and not talked to, by our teachers. I wasn't used to this one-on-one, individual attention.

In fact now that I think about it, how could my teacher have found the time to have each of us give her an individualized oral report? Maybe it was after school, and it was some makeup exam or something. I did miss a lot of school. I was one of those kids who always missed the maximum amount of school allowed before getting kicked out or having to go to summer school. I was always making up exams. And considering that I was slacksadaisical about turning in my day-to-day homework, I was lucky that I tended to score so well on my exams, somehow maintaining an A/B average despite my poor study skills and attendance.

Probably, now that I think about it, I was giving my English teacher a one-on-one oral report as a make up exam from a day when I stayed home on the couch watching Andy Griffith Show reruns because I had a panic attack thinking about giving an oral report in front of my whole class.

I remember the look on my English teacher's face as I talked about the book. I'd never seen that expression before. Like she was looking at someone she'd never seen before. My mom once told me that when I was in kindergarten, she had to come pick me up because I'd thrown up. During the drive home, she later told me, I talked non-stop.

"I'd never heard you talk so much. I always thought you were a shy kid, but it was then that I realized you just never got a chance to talk much at home with all your talkative brothers and sisters around."

That was when I was really young. By the time I was in ninth grade at Milburn Junior High, standing in front of my English teacher, telling her how much I loved reading this book, I was the only child left at home. My siblings are much older than me, so they'd all moved out. It was just me and Mom and Dad and their miserable marriage left in our family. I spent a lot of time in my bedroom laying on my back, singing along with Morrissey and Michael Stipe. I read lots of books. My family, although miserable, was full of bookworms. We visited the public library every other week. My parents checked out about two sacks of library books each time. They were voracious readers, and so was I. It's the thing I'm most proud of both of my parents: they taught me that no matter how hard the struggle of life is, reading makes it better.

As I told my ninth grade English teacher about how much I liked this book, she smiled and started rifling through the papers on her desk. When I finally finished talking, she gave me a list of other authors I might like. Alice Walker was on it. She's the author of The Color Purple, which soon became one of my favorite books, which it is still today.

I guess my point is that reading changes lives. Life is hard. It's a struggle for everyone. I had my share of ups and downs as a teenager, and reading got me through it. Now I'm a middle-age librarian. And the world is still full of suck. And books still lessen the suck.

My fellow librarians are helping to alleviate world suck in amazing ways. For example, this librarian has created a list of #BlackLivesMatter books recommended for teens to help them understand what's going on in a world where daily we're bombarded with news of mass shootings and police brutality and cop killings.

I've written some reviews of books I think will help teens feel better about our chaotic world, especially All American Boys and We Troubled The Waters. But I realized I hadn't ever shared a review of my first "anti-racism" book, Black Like Me. So here it is. I'm forever grateful to my ninth grade English teacher for introducing me to it and for giving me wider eyes.