Rachel Dolezal, John Howard Griffin and the Dangers of Race-Changing

Rachel Dolezal, John Howard Griffin and the Dangers of Race-Changing June 16, 2015

“Pray God,” wrote T.E. Lawrence in Seven Pillars of Wisdom, “that men reading this story will not, for the love of the glamour of strangeness, go out to prostitute themselves and their talents in serving another race.” By this, Lawrence didn’t mean that people should serve only their own races. He meant that serving another race – or another nation or ethnic community – means adopting a foreign view of the world, including one’s own people and oneself. The adoption process poses real psychological risks, and whoever courts them had better be in it for the sake of something worthier than novelty.

We’ve been reading a lot about race and service since the discovery that Rachel Dolezal, former head of Spokane’s NAACP chapter, was born to parents with no known African ancestors. What made Dolezal erase her personal history and change her appearance in such a way as to make her deception credible, remains unclear. Though Slate’s Jamelle Bouie calls race “a porous reality,” he finally — and along with most other observers — dismisses her as a fraud.

A far more respectable race-changing pioneer was the Catholic writer John Howard Griffin. For six weeks in 1959, the white, Dallas-born Griffin darkened his skin and traveled, as a black man, through the deep South. He wrote a first-person account of his travels, Black Like Me, which has sold more than 10 million copies. Griffin undertook his experiment precisely for love of strangeness – but his love was a Christian love.

Influenced by the mysticism of Martin Buber, Griffin was convinced that direct personal experience was the straightest path to true knowledge. Small wonder, given the variety of experiences he’d had — or perhaps “survived” is a better word. By the late 1950s, Griffin had helped Jews escape from Nazi-occupied France, lived for a year as the only white man among Solomon Islanders, lost his eyesight as the result of wounds sustained in battle against the Japanese, and lost the use of his legs as a side-effect of malaria. After carefully controlled doses of arsenic restored Griffin’s legs, his eyesight suddenly – miraculously – returned.

At first, recovering his sight made Griffin anxious for the wisdom and sense of community he’d gained during his ten years of blindness. “Dimly I thought of all those sightless people who had for so long been my brothers and sisters,” Griffin later wrote. “Was I actually leaving their world to which I had become accustomed? I prayed for the presence of mind never to forget them.”

This accounts for Griffin’s love of strangeness – his belief that understanding other people came through living their lives. It was this belief that made him decide to investigate the conditions of Southern black life by taking on a black skin. After selling the idea to Sepia magazine, whose editor George Levitan agreed to pay his expenses up front, Griffin flew to New Orleans. There, he ingested huge doses of Oxsoralen and lying under a sun lamp for 15-hour stretches. After shaving his head and staining his scalp, he looked in the mirror – and came, literally, face to face with the dangers T.E. Lawrence alluded to. As he wrote in Black Like Me:

“I was imprisoned in the flesh of an utter stranger, an unsympathetic one with whom I felt no kinship…I knew now that there is no such thing as a disguised white man, when the black won’t rub off. The black man is wholly a Negro, regardless of what he once may have been.”

In other words, not only did Griffin discover that changing his color – and with it, his social standing – changed his entire identity, he discovered he didn’t particularly like the person he’d become. The last fact came as an especially unwelcome shock, and Griffin subjected his Catholic conscience to a ruthless examination on account of it. “I realized,” he wrote in an essay titled “The Intrinsic Other,” “that although intellectually I had liberated myself from the prejudices which our Southern tradition inculcates in us, these prejudices were so indredged in me that at the emotional level I was in no way liberated.” In fact, he was “filled with despair.”

After a few days, however, Griffin achieved what he set out to achieve: a sense of mystical communion with black people. As he later wrote in the same essay, “The wounds I had carried thirty-nine years were healed within five days through the emotional experience of perceiving that the Other was not Other at all…that at the profound human level, all men are united.”

This is profound – and, perhaps in awe of that profundity, Griffin tended to ignore the strata of reality just above it, namely, the ones comprising culture. His goal, as he hitchhiked and travels by bus from New Orleans through Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia, was to channel the black experience, not document black people’s tastes or habits. In many respects, this is fortunate. Had Griffin been distracted from his mission by, say, a love for jazz, blues, or some other beautiful by-product of life under the knout, his writings might read a lot more like Norman Mailer’s essay “The White Negro.”

At the same time, Griffin’s deep knowledge left him impatient with – if not actually contemptuous of – the shallower kinds. He described catching rides through Mississippi with whites whose apparent friendliness masked a prurient interest in his sex life. One of these drivers, a little better informed than the others, justified his preconceived notions about the black libido by citing research, including Kinsey’s. By then understandably fed up with these interrogations, Griffin wrote him off as “a young man with an impressive store of facts but no truths.”

It wouldn’t be inaccurate to call Griffin’s experiences adventures. He bluffed his way out of a mugging at the hands of racist white hoodlums and dodged the amorous attentions of a widowed black woman. But he didn’t write an adventure story, since that would have meant taking some pride in his own boldness, or in the cleverness of his disguise. Griffin was too good a Catholic to take much pride in anything, and his black skin, as far as he was concerned, was not a disguise; it was a new self, which he inhabited completely. All he felt was fear and weariness and – occasionally, as when he found a warm reception at a New Orleans Catholic book store – the peace of the Church.

This peace, which Griffin found again in the Trappist monastery at Conyers, Georgia, where he ended his journey, could not, by itself, restore his mental or spiritual equilibrium. In The Man in the Mirror: John Howard Griffin and the Story of Black Like Me, Robert Bonazzi writes that experiencing racism left him with “a very deep human hurt.” Through immersing himself in friendly company, classical music, and the writings of Jacques Maritain, Griffin transcended it to the point where he could feel charitably toward the white racists who’d ground him down.

Rachel Dolezal has just stated for the record that she “identifies” as black. It remains to be seen how many people, white and black, will ratify her identity. But Griffin’s story demonstrates the wisdom of Lawrence’s warning: racial line-crossing should not be for those with faint hearts, murky motives, or without good enough spiritual direction to guide them through an I-and-Thou mystical ecounter with the Other. Most of us who would serve the cause of racial harmony would do better to observe the simple, solemn promise made by doctors: First, do no harm.

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