Black Like Me (John Howard Griffin)

Black Like Me (50th Anniversary Edition)



Every once in a while a book dances across my path that renders me utterly speechless. Griffin's Black Like Me is one such work. Hard as I try, I'll fail to do this one justice...but try, still I will.

I'll be researching more about this John Howard Griffin in order to affirm or re-evaluate my initial opinion that he's pretty much an unsung hero of the civil rights movement. At this point in my knowledge of him, he seems to have been a major protagonist in the development of social justice for black Americans. For all Americans, really.

I'm sort of furious that we didn't read this book in high school.

Griffin's book was written in the late 50s and is about an experiment he performed to discover if and how there were differences in the ways black and white men in the South were treated. In 1957, he decided to medically darken his skin so that he looked like a black man. This book chronicles his experiences in a string of Deep South cities from New Orleans over to Atlanta, including stops in Mobile, Montgomery, and Biloxi. For six weeks, Griffin ventured into each city alternating between white Griffin and "Negro Griffin."

*It was 1957. The words "Negro" and "n*****" were used commonly and crudely. They're all over this book. I won't censor direct quotes, as that would detract from historical accuracy. Personally, however, I am rather uncomfortable using the terms even in this setting.

Obviously, he encountered rather poor treatment when he was black. The book details the stress of being harassed by white teenagers, his inability to get a job, and a bile-rising string of depraved questions from white men regarding very intimate details of black men's personal relationships. Once the experiment ended, Griffin's personal knowledge led to him becoming a common guest to meetings with leaders of both races (some separate, others mixed) who were seeking ways to bring peace and justice to the country. He writes of criticism on both sides of mistakes made during this critical time period.

Normally a good book means a few marked pages or highlights/notes in my Kindle. This may tell you something about the number of penetrating statements within this book.



I won't list them all, and for the sake of reasonableness, I've limited myself to the five most profound.

"The Negro. The South. These are details. The real story is the universal one of men who destroy the souls of other men (and in the process destroy themselves) for reasons neither really understands. It is the story of the persecuted, the defrauded, the feared, and detested. I could have been a Jew in Germany, a Mexican in a number of states, or a member of any 'inferior' group. Only the details would have differed. The story would be the same." (Preface)

"I learned a strange thing- that in a jumble of unintelligible talk, the word 'n*****' leaps out with electric clarity. You always hear it and it always stings. And always it casts the person using it into a category of brute ignorance. I thought with some amusement that if these two women only knew what they were revealing to every Negro on that bus, they would have been outraged." (Pg. 21)

"My revulsion turned to grief that my own people could give the hate stare, could shrivel men's souls, could deprive humans of rights they unhesitatingly accord their livestock." (Pg. 67)

"The white man's fears have been widely broadcast. To the Negro, these fears of 'intermingling' make no sense. All he can see is that the white man wants to hold him down- to make him live up to his responsibilities of taxpayer and soldier, while denying him the privileges of a citizen." (Pg. 121)

"Too many of the more militant leaders are preaching Negro superiority. I pray that the Negro will not miss his chance to rise to greatness, to build from the strength gained through his past suffering and, above all, to rise beyond vengeance." (Pg. 164)

Look, I grew up in the 80s and 90s. I won't even begin to pretend I understand the scope of what happened in this country during the civil rights movement. I could never fully grasp the complexity of all sides involved. I do pay close attention to this part of our history, perhaps because mine is a transracial family and maybe because I believe social justice is essential to the liberty of our great land.

Black Like Me is the can opener many people need to crack our minds wide enough to consider the intricacy of racial tensions and issues, both past and present.

*Please view disclosure statement at bottom of page.

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (Maya Angelou)


There are some books, some authors, whose styles resonate soundly within me. To Kill a Mockingbird is that way. Every time I crack it open, I literally sigh my way through it because it is just so...beautiful.

I really like to read and enjoy a rather nice variety of genres, but I LOVE it when an author takes ordinary words and crafts them into something so pretty it can only be called art.

Maya Angelou is an amazing wordsmith, and I adore her style. When I was about 2 chapters in to this book, all I could think was I will never forgive my high school English teachers for not exposing us to this.* I mean, we had to read "Hedda Gabler," for cryin' out loud! Ugh.


I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is Maya Angelou's autobiography. She and her older brother Bailey were brought South to live with their grandmother in Stamps, Arkansas when they were children (this would be the 50's), and encountered more than one brush with racism in its ugliest forms. The best parts of this book are Maya's penning of segregation and racism in ways most people have never fathomed. Before long they were returned to live with their mother, in California. She was a wild woman with a fierce love for her children but little regard for structured parenting. Maya's experiences living with her mother taught her everything she wanted to know and didn't want to know about family. Sadly, young Maya was sexually abused for a lengthy period of time, and soon after she and her brother returned to Arkansas for a time before a string of moves involving their father, their mother, and their grandmother. As Maya grew into a young woman, she questioned everything about herself, including her appearance, her sexuality, and her relationships with her family members. This "self-discovery" led to a pregnancy, and at a very young age Maya Angelou became a mother to her son.

Eventually Maya ended up in the theater and, through both her innate ability to paint pictures with her words and her proclivity for delivering them theatrically, has become an icon of both this century and the last. She continues to write and speak about her life, and the literary world is a better place because she's in it.

Some of my favorite lines from the book:

On Maya's and Bailey's arriving in Stamps, Arkansas: "The town reacted to us as its inhabitants had reacted to all things new before our coming. It regarded us a while without curiosity but with caution, and after we were seen to be harmless (and children) it closed in around us, as a real mother embrace's a stranger's child. Warmly, but not too familiarly." pg. 5

"Of all the needs (and there are none imaginary) a lonely child has, the one that must be satisfied, if there is going to be hope and a hope of wholeness, is the unshaking need for an unshakable God." pg. 23

On her relationship with her brother: "Bailey was the greatest person in my world. And the fact that he was my brother, my only brother, and I had no sisters to share him with, was such good fortune that it made me want to live a Christian life just to show God I was grateful." pg. 22

Maya's feelings while listening to a white politician giving a speech at her high school graduation: "We were maids and farmers, handymen and washerwomen, and anything higher we aspired to was farcical and presumptuous." pg. 180

*I suspect that the reason I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings was kept from us in high school was the chapter toward the end in which she struggles with issues relating to her sexuality. If I'm right, I find this rather unfortunate. I'm a full believer in taking care not to expose children and young adults to material not developmentally appropriate. I also believe that we all need to do a better job of making sure that we aren't "protecting" children and teenagers from issues we find too uncomfortable ourselves. Yet again, a post for another day.

Bossypants (Tina Fey)

Good for reflection as working moms and GREAT for a laugh, Bossypants is by far one of the most entertaining autobiographies I've ever read. With her classic wit and hilarious sarcasm, Tina Fey sends readers to the floor in all-out gut chuckles over her antics, experiences, and observations. She tells her side of the whole Palin impersonation gig, shares insight into work on the SNL set, and gives her inner monologue on the conflict (every working mom's conflict) between a desire to work and a desire to be with her children. It's a short, light read and you close it (or click out, in case of e-readers) with a greater respect and appreciation for Tina Fey's work than ever before. 

Just do not, don't even think of it, ask her about her scar. 
What scar? 
Yeah, that's what I said! 
 

 

Choosing to SEE (Mary Beth Chapman)

Thanks to a hot Kindle sale, I was able to read this narrative biographical journey of Mary Beth and the Chapman family throughout their rather tumultuous life experiences. In the book, she tells of her early life together with Christian singer/songwriter Steven Curtis Chapman. She also tells of their family's growth through birth and through adoption. She writes very candidly about the sad accident which caused the death of little Maria, one of their daughters. This is a book that resonates with every mother, and unlike many of the popular "celebrity" books written today, Mrs. Mary Beth is as real as it gets. I'm thankful for her courage in writing this book.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (Rebecca Skloot)

Ever heard of something called HeLa cells? Yeah, umm, me either...not until a few months ago, anyway.


HeLa is a building block of cell science and a cornerstone of modern medical research. Among numerous other very interesting uses, HeLa cells were used in the first space missions to test the effects of space on human cells, they were used in nuclear experiments, and they were (and still are) used to develop important vaccines, chemotherapies, and radiation treatments that have and continue to save millions of human lives. HeLa is widely known in the medical science community as one of the most important tools in the development of modern medicine. The purchase and sale of HeLa cells for the purpose of medical research over time likely numbers somewhere in the billions.


This book goes into painstaking detail about the relevance of HeLa cells in the existence of mankind, but its primary purpose is to shed some light on how HeLa came to be...which went a little something like this:


Once upon a time there was a woman, a wife and mother to several children. She suffered several medical ailments on and off in her life, but one day she became very ill and was diagnosed with cervical cancer. The doctor treated her with radiation, but the cancer spread and in her very early thirties this young woman died. After her death, cells were removed from her body and used in an experiment of cell division. Unlike any other cell in that experiment, this woman's cells kept dividing. And kept dividing. And kept dividing. And even unto this very day, they are still continuing to divide. Because of this unique type of cell division and multiplication, the woman's cells were extremely valuable for a multitude of research purposes. The woman's name was Henrietta Lacks. Likely because it was the 1950's and even more likely because Henrietta Lacks was a black woman, her family was never informed of the cultivation of her cells for research and certainly not informed of their value. Today, Henrietta's family is trapped between an expired statute of limitations on the several infringements committed toward them and an understandable inability to trust anyone in the legal or medical communities after a lifetime of  betrayals they have experienced. They have lived 60 years of intense frustration, and no one in the Lacks family has lived happily ever after. 

What a sad, sad story. Henrietta Lacks left a legacy that has transformed medical science, yet her own children stated at one point that they were so poor that they couldn't even afford health insurance.

Somehow the author of this book won the trust of the Lacks family and was therefore able to put together this very comprehensive tale of Henrietta's life and background, her medical treatments, and the process of the discovery and subsequent uses of HeLa cells. It is incredibly thorough and in the author's own words was extensively fact-checked.

The thoughts that continued to run through my mind while trudging through the bits of cellular science history were that the real untold story here is that this family has been exploited in ways unimaginable. Their disadvantages due to poverty and race (at that time) made them easy prey for the people who they should have been able to trust: the doctors. What has been done to the Lacks family is positively inexcusable, and why no reparations have been made to Henrietta's descendants is beyond me.

In addition to her cells' contributions to science, the controversy surrounding Henrietta's family's experience has led to a revolution in the way patients are required to be informed and to give consent for their treatments or for bits removed from their bodies. What you and I take for granted in that stack of release, privacy, and consent forms we fill out at the doc's office or for pre-operative processing, Henrietta was never given the opportunity to consider. You can thank Henrietta Lacks for her seemingly ceaseless contributions to science, but you can also thank her for your right today as a patient to be informed and to give consent to procedures that involve your body and what is removed from it. And we can all thank Rebecca Skloot for telling Henrietta's story.

*The author used a portion of her earnings from sale of her book to establish the Henrietta Lacks Foundation, which is a foundation that provides scholarships and grants for descendants of Henrietta Lacks as well as descendants of other research subjects (ex: the Tuskegee experiments). Learn more about that here: http://www.henriettalacksfoundation.org/

For more about the author and Henrietta's story, go to http://rebeccaskloot.com/.