Another June 16th human being I really love is John Howard Griffin.
6/16/20 – 9/9/80
I hope you already know all about this man, but if not, he was a White anti-racist who grew up in the South and wanted to do something to reach the hearts and minds of White Americans, most of whom were in denial about the conditions under which Black people lived.
Griffin conducted an experiment in 1959 that included shaving his head, darkening his skin with lamps and pharmaceuticals and living as a Black man in the deep south.
Though he endured for several weeks, he ended up cutting the experiment short, as he found that being a Black man was too difficult for him to maintain for long. He wrote a book about his experiences that made him a celebrity and (to some) a villain.
“Nothing can describe the withering horror of this. You feel lost, sick at heart before such unmasked hatred, not so much because it threatens you as because it shows humans in such an inhuman light. You see a kind of insanity, something so obscene the very obscenity of it (rather than its threat) terrifies you. It was so new I could not take my eyes from the man’s face. I felt like saying: “What in God’s name are you doing to yourself?”
“Suddenly I had had enough. Suddenly I could stomach no more of this degradation- not of myself but of all men who were black like me.”
“When all the talk, all the propaganda has been cut away, the criterion is nothing but the color of skin. My experience proved that. They judged me by no quality. My skin was dark.”
Mr. Griffin knew when he conducted his experiment he would forever be putting himself at odds with those in America who didn’t want the ugliest realities of racism to be exposed and so vividly expressed by someone White. After his book “Black Like Me” was published in 1961 he and his family received continual death threats. They left their Texas home and eventually moved to Mexico.
“John Howard Griffin was one of the most remarkable people I have ever encountered…He was just one of those guys that comes along once or twice in a century and lifts the hearts of the rest of us.” -Studs Terkel
Here is an excellent article about Griffin’s life, his experiment and his writings: JimCrowMuseum <<–Highly suggested reading!
“It seems to me that our country is involved in a kind of mass insanity where you can abuse the gift of sight in order to use it to discriminate against somebody.”
Spoken word artist Joshua Bennett has ten things he wants to say to a black woman, and I’m not sure I want to hear it.
I’ve happened upon Bennett’s YouTube video and I see that hundreds of thousands of viewers have already clicked play.
I’m curious, and dubious. Haven’t I seen more than enough of these user submitted monologues and their hurtful diatribe masquerading as “advice” on how black women can become less flawed?
Yes, I’m defensive, despite the fact that whatever Bennett’s message is, it is probably not directed at me.
As a “mixed” woman who did not inherit my black father’s genetic code for brown skin, I exist in a narrow category of African Americans for whom the “racial” identifier “black” is hesitantly (at times begrudgingly) applied. Despite my stubborn insistence on claiming my “blackness,” the truth is, I have walked through life experiencing the privileges white skin affords one in America. Privileges I am acutely aware of due to my proximity to brown-skinned family and friends whose social interactions differ so greatly from mine.
I’m sure there are some privileges I’m clueless about because they are conferred when I’m not paying attention to how brown I am not.
But sometimes I am paying attention.
Like recently when I sat with two four-year-old brown girls to watch Disney’s latest princess movie, Tangled. And, no, this won’t be a rant about popular culture’s preoccupation with the pretty white girl and her extra-long glistening blonde hair. I can discuss that image with my girls, no problem. I can confirm to my little ones that Rapunzel is bright, brave and beautiful under her blonde tresses, and in the next breath I will rave about how smart, sweet and stunning my girls are beneath their brunette twists and braids.
As a mother of four brown-skinned daughters, I have become quite adept at explaining how the Creator made us all with varied skin tones and physical features that are a perfect reflection of the Universe’s awesome diversity. In our discussions, brunette does not trump blonde. Long and straight isn’t more perfect than tightly kinked. Vanilla is delicious. Chocolate is delectable. It’s all good. It’s all beautiful.
I can do that conversation. No sweat.
But there are times when the Media are so blatant and brutal in their bias against black women that it knocks me back a few paces and I have to regroup.
Or when First Lady Michelle Obama must publicly defend herself against accusations she’s an “angry black woman.”
Or when filmmaker George Lucas spends his own money to make an amazing film about the black Tuskegee airmen of WWII, omits the black wives, and focuses instead on a love story featuring a Portuguese woman. (By the way, George, there were Tuskeegee Airwomen, too.)
With the exception of a rare few (most of whom are very light skinned), black women are not celebrated in mainstream American culture, or held up as role models for American children to cherish, respect and emulate.
Having said that…
We are twenty minutes into Tangled, these two little brown girls and I, and we are getting to know and love this feisty Rapunzel, and we are celebrating her escape from the tower, and she is led by prince-to-be Flynn Rider into a dark den of disgusting, mean , lawless outcasts, and…
Disney flings this dagger at my little loves:
Flynn Rider: You smell that? Take a deep breath through the nose. (He inhales.) Really let that seep in. What are you getting? Because to me, that’s part man-smell, and the other part is really bad man-smell. I don’t know why, but overall it just smells like the color brown.
There wasn’t one human being among the hundreds who worked on this picture who read/saw that scene and said something like,
“Um, won’t there be little brown children watching this? Won’t this movie be around, like, forever, and should we equate the skin color of millions of children who will watch this with ‘really bad man smell’?”
And, what might this moment have to do with white privilege?
It has everything to do with having the privilege (or not having it) of raising daughters in a society where their skin color will be publicly celebrated. Where it will be held up as something beautiful and worthy of admiration and protection. Where it will not be referred to, even indirectly, as something really bad smelling.
Before you watch Joshua Bennett’s poem, watch this excerpt from Kiri Davis’s brilliant film A Girl Like Me, and ask yourself what is going on in the heart and soul of this little girl at marker 1:36. What messages has she already received about being a black girl, and from where are they coming? Who will counter those messages with beautiful truth?
I must admit, when I clicked on Bennett’s YouTube video, “10 Things I Want to Say to a Black Woman,” I steeled myself for what I suspected would be another disgruntled man giving “advice” to black women on how to be less “angry” and more “lovable.”
How is it that a 20-year-old Black man with his pants sagging low enough to expose his boxer shorts made US Airways flight attendants feel the need to correct his fashion choice, yet this passenger flew with no problem on the same airline a week before–despite the fact that there were several complaints about his (lack of) attire. Disgruntled passengers were told the airline did not have a dress policy and they could not intervene.
*Clutching My Pearls*
Um. Oh, no they didn’t.
According to US Airways spokeswoman Valerie Wunder,
“We don’t have a dress code policy. Obviously, if their private parts are exposed, that’s not appropriate… So if they’re not exposing their private parts, they’re allowed to fly.”
Deshon Marman, hold on just a few months, my brotha. You are about to be a very rich young man.