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Saturday, March 17, 2012

Black Like Me (audiobook) by John Howard Griffin

Extraordinarily Powerful As An Audiobook Experience

Published in December 2011 by AudioGO
Read by Ray Childs
Duration: approximately 7 hours.

In 1959, John Howard Griffin (1920-1980), an author and journalist decided to go check out the serious rumblings of the Civil Rights movement for himself. Griffin was white and he decided to medically darken his skin (and smooth out the rough spots with dye and shave his head) and go as a black man. His plan was to see if things truly were different on the other side of the color line.

The book is a novelization of his experiences (meaning things were edited and re-arranged to make the story work better) and it starts with him pitching his idea to a publisher and his family. Once he gets funding and permission from his family (after a lot of serious talk about how dangerous this could be) Griffin heads off to New Orleans for his medical treatments. He picks New Orleans because of its more liberal racial attitudes, figuring that it would be easier for him to learn the new rules and expectations (if there were any) in a more forgiving environment. He tours the city, both black and white areas as a white man and once his transformation is complete he makes the same trips as a black man.

John Howard Griffin (left) and Sterling. Photo by Don Rutledge.
Griffin discovers that the world was indeed a different place for a black man in the south in 1959. He was denied entry to most places. He was routinely given what he called the "hate stare" by complete strangers, and had great difficulty with the basics of life such as getting something to drink and finding a restroom. He was coached in the basics by a shoeshine man named Sterling that he had befriended as a white customer. Sterling was astounded by the change and fearful for Griffin's life if he was ever found out. But, Sterling's lessons become the first real introduction that Griffin and the readers get to the differences between life as a black man and life as a white man.

Griffin spends quite a bit of time in New Orleans and details a lot of inequities in housing, eateries, stores, hotels and so on. In fact, just about the only place that gives Griffin an even break is a Catholic book store. Griffin decides to travel to Mississippi to visit an area that had had a recent lynching.  He also hitchhiked across Alabama, visited Atlanta. He experiences city life, rural life and everywhere there is the pervasive presence of racism. Griffin's prose is oftentimes moving. He commented at the beginning of the book that this book was written quickly and not very polished. Griffin completely underestimated the power of his writing - it may have been quick, but it was very well done.

This edition includes an epilogue written for the 2nd edition of the book printed in 1977. The epilogue details the dangers suffered by Griffin after the publication of Black Like Me in 1961 and his usefulness as an intermediary between white and black members of communities throughout the U.S. However, the epilogue does not end on a hopeful note as Griffin is quite frustrated with the slow pace of racial reconciliation in America. He died in 1980 so we do not know what he would have thought about how things have gone in the last 30 years.

The audiobook reader, Ray Childs, does a masterful job with dialects, creating new voices (voices of different races and different sexes from different regions - all done perfectly). He reads the text with great effect and helps to make many poignant scenes even more profound.

With the exception of just a few minutes of the description of Atlanta (not being from Atlanta, I found the recital of African American neighborhoods and the lengthy listing of their community leaders a bit dry) this is a moving book that pulls the listener in and keeps the listener listening.

I rate this book 5 stars out of 5.

This audiobook can be found on Amazon.com here: Black Like Me.

Reviewed on May 17, 2012.

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