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Op-eds, Opinions

Arnold MA’19: What’s it like to be ‘Black Like Me?’

By
Op-ed Contributor
Monday, March 9, 2020

Recently, I participated in a screening of the film “Black Like Me.” The event was hosted at Brown University’s Manning Chapel by the Office of the Chaplains and Religious Life. The 1964 film is based on the true story of John Howard Griffin who decided to temporarily change his skin pigmentation, with the help of medication and a sun lamp, to look like a Black man. He did this, according to his writings and the film, to understand the experiences of Black people in the Deep South. In 1959, after the changes in his skin made him noticeably appear Black, he started traveling throughout the Deep South passing as a Black man. Although I was aware of Griffin’s story, the recent screening was the first time I had viewed the film. Much has been written about the significance of “Black Like Me” and Griffin’s bold decision; however, for me, as a Black woman and a southerner, the film’s impression was beyond cinematic and an academic survey. The film asks a simple moral question which still has relevance: What is it like to walk in the experiences of another person, regardless of how unrelatable their experiences might be to your own?

My family lived through what Griffin was exploring; the film has scenes I find relatable, such as the hospitality shown to the lead character by Black people during his travels, and the role his faith played in his decision to tackle the trip. Moreover, I have relatives who were born enslaved in the South and others who survived segregation and oppression. “Black Like Me” is a type of panoramic photograph of my family’s years of survival. The film obviously displays the problem of bigotry and the trail it leaves in its wake on relationships between Black and white people in the South. However, it also illustrates the importance of validating that people can have a shared experience that is also unrelatable. My knowledge of any kind of intolerance is that it can be based on and caused by a person’s insular approaches to others. It can also be guided by hatred and can be morally blinded by hatred’s judgment.

As difficult as it may be to admit, there is a tendency, even today, to disregard and dismiss intolerance. Making an effort to destroy apathy in ourselves and to actually feel another’s struggles is imperative to our relationships and our personal character. For example, indigent people are often ignored and neglected — but would they be invisible to us if as we stepped over them in the street, we took the moral step of trying to put ourselves in their shoes?

Personally, I’m astonished by people like Griffin. His religious faith, prevalent in the film, gave him courage and conviction to travel to the South. He was literally living the lyrics of a well-known song from the period titled “Walk a Mile in My Shoes.” The first lines of the song are:

“If I could be you, if you could be me for just one hour, if we could find a way to get inside each other’s mind.

If you could see you through my eyes, instead of your ego, I believe you’d be surprised to see that you’ve been blind.

Walk a mile in my shoes, walk a mile in my shoes, before you abuse, criticize and accuse, walk a mile in my shoes.”

Similar to Viola Gregg Liuzzo and William Lewis Moore, who lost their lives fighting for the rights of Black people, I cannot begin to relate to Griffin’s decision to risk his life to simply understand what it meant to be a Black man. Nonetheless, I am grateful for Griffin, Liuzzo and Moore. They sought to personally understand Black people while fighting for them — and for that I am appreciative.

“Black Like Me” is a snapshot of terrible years for our country, seen through the eyes of an outsider who wanted to know the struggle of the assumed and the accused: Black people. Unfortunately, the underlying issue in the film is still pertinent. Today, we continue to struggle with stereotyping, quickly passing judgment and making assumptions before knowing anything about an individual. As long as there are differences influenced by a narrow awareness of others, the moral question asked by “Black Like Me” will always be essential.

After the screening, I thought of my own life experiences as a person of color and considered: Have I ever encountered anyone who was not Black, that strove with the same eagerness as Griffin to understand me as a Black woman? None came to mind. And though I’ve tried to understand the experiences of others, I also did not recall having the same eagerness as Griffin. Furthermore, after his bold excursion, did Griffin ever regret acting upon his simple moral question? I have a feeling he did not. I’m certain the Black people he met never regretted meeting him, nor did they forget him. I would encourage viewing “Black Like Me” as an exercise in the importance of acknowledging and understanding tolerance, diversity and the seemingly irreversible damage of hate and prejudice. If Griffin knew the film changed us enough to start asking in our daily interactions, “What it’s like to be…?,” then I’m certain he would have no regrets.

Sandra A. Arnold MA’19 is a public historian and an alum of Brown University. She is currently a religious life affiliate with Brown’s Office of the Chaplains and Religious Life. She can be reached at sandra_arnold@alumni.brown.edu.

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