I will be teaching a class on narrative and race next spring and am thinking a lot about the way narrative works, especially in terms of how we perceive/recognize “truth.”
What is truth? Who can ask that question?
In 1959, John Howard Griffin, a white Texan newspaper columnist, decided to become a black man. His plan was to change his skin color and experience life in the southern United States as a black man, and to keep a diary of these experiences. His rationale was that he could not possibly understand what life was like for blacks, which he desperately wanted to do. Through the help of a dermatologist, Griffin underwent a process to change the color of his skin, then moved to New Orleans to begin his life as a black man. For several weeks he conducted his experiment, and had some profound learning experiences about the brutality of racism, the complete separation of the races, and overall how difficult it was to be black. The record of his experiences became an article and eventually a book, Black Like Me. Griffin received a fair amount of publicity, most of which was filled with praise for his supposed bravery and nobility. He and his family also received some negative attention and threats, and he eventually moved his family for their safety. Black Like Me has gone on to become a classic; the latest edition is a 35th anniversary reprinting and it is regularly assigned to high school English and Social Studies classes across the United States. The book has touched many people’s lives and has purportedly opened many eyes to the brutality of the American apartheid system. It became Griffin’s best-known work and brought him a lot of fame.
Yet this story begs the question: why did a white man have to become a black man in order for people to understand the truth about racism in America? Hundreds, thousands of men, women and children were experiencing (and had experienced) what Griffin did, not for a few short weeks, but for a lifetime. Why was their truth not truthful enough? I believe that Griffin’s experiment and its reception was one more symbol of the racist system he was seeking to expose. The sorrowful tale of black lives mediated through the truth-telling lens of whiteness gains validity. One customer review of the book on amazon.com has this to say: “After reading Black Like Me, I see why it is a classic. I recommend it … because this book showed the injustices from an insider’s perspective.” Another reviewer wrote, “It’s hard for me to imagine something like this was allowed to happen in the United States.” The fact that a book like this was such a success indicates this was not an unusual sentiment, even though people of color had been telling, and continue to tell their/our stories.
In her book Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the Sociological Imagination, Avery Gordon exposes this phenomenon and how it has affected various disciplines—sociology, history, anthropology, literature—by describing the bind black autobiographers and their publishers have been in for generations, for instance, the slave narrative had to be real enough to be believable, yet not too melodramatic lest it not be taken seriously. And, as slaves were understood to be liars; how could the stories they told about their lives be believable? Who will tell the stories for those who have no “audible public voice” (Gordon, Ghostly Matters, 150)? Who believes those who are telling their stories today and what are the implications for social justice? For instance, what does it mean that a majority of blacks understood the federal response to hurricane Katrina to be a precise opposite of what a majority of whites understood? Who gets to decide the “truth” of this narrative?
The slave narrative, Gordon notes, “told the bare, real truth of slavery, from the point of view of the one who was or had been in it, so that the reader would be moved to comprehend, empathize, and seek salvation for the slave and the nation” (143). Likewise, anonymous black and brown peoples have sought since the days of slavery to make their reality known but find their stories shaped, produced and distributed by others.
Griffith’s purpose for his experiment was to discover the reason for the great gulf between blacks and whites in the middle of the 20th century. At the end of his book, he concludes these two groups simply don’t understand one another and that the end of racism would happen once that understanding had been achieved. Further, he notes blacks were as capable of racism as whites, in that they also displayed hatred towards those outside of their own racial category. Griffith fails to provide a historical and political context around his sociological experiment, and thus neatly sidesteps the part that violence, power and control have to play in the situation he seeks to understand (even though he himself experienced the reality of violence against, and power and control over black people as he masqueraded as a black man). Griffith demonstrates that he still did not believe the truth that he himself experienced. His own experience has become Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, who Gordon notes was captive to “the extent to which the mediums of public image making and visibility are inextricably wedded to the conjoined mechanisms that systematically render certain groups of people apparently privately poor, uneducated, ill and disenfranchised” (17). Griffith cannot comment capably on the larger historical and political context, because his truth is that each individual is ultimately responsible for her or his station in life. He can see, and even experience the predicament of those blacks with whom he lives for a short time, yet he remains morally blind to structural solutions for the problems with which they live. Griffith was incapable (and was and is not alone in this) of seeing the way Gordon notes writers such as Toni Morrison are able to see and negotiate the “always unsettled relationship between what we see and what we know” (194); this way of seeing, she adds, has great significance for social analysis and those who write to effect social and political change.