On November 7 1959 John Howard Griffin, a white Texan journalist, checked into a hotel in New Orleans. He had already been taking medication to darken his skin. Now he shaved his head and applied coat after coat of dark stain. When he had finished he looked in the mirror. ‘A fierce, bald, and very dark Negro glared at me from the glass. He in no way resembled me. The transformation was total and shocking . . . I was imprisoned in the flesh of an utter stranger, an unsympathetic one with whom I felt no kinship.’ So began the six weeks or so that Griffin lived as a black man in the segregated South, encountering not only the racism in society, but his own hitherto unconscious racism. BLACK LIKE ME contains his journal of these weeks and the story of what came after. I had never heard of this book until it was chosen by my book group. I had known of course – in theory – about the situation that he writes about, but the details of this account brought it home to me as never before. He wrote frankly, telling of his fear when he hitched a ride with a white man who told him that he had had sex with all the black women who worked for him – they couldn’t refuse because they needed to eat or to feed their children – and talked of how easily the body of a black troublemaker could be tossed in the swamp and never heard of again. He experienced the posiononous atmosphere of a town where just days before a Grand Jury had failed to indict a lynch mob for the murder of a black man. He writes of ‘the hate stare’ that he endured from white people.
When his journal of these weeks was published, he was threatened with castration, he was hanged in effigy in his home town, and moved his family to Mexico for their own safety. He refused to be intimidated and went on to play a prominent in the civil rights movement. As a consequence a gang of white men beat him with chains and left him for dead.
An extraordinary man and an extraordinary book.
A few weeks ago I went to the book launch of GIRL IN A GREEN GOWN: THE HISTORY AND MYSTERY OF THE ARNOLFINI PORTRAIT by my friend, Carola Hicks. It was an occasion both unusual and moving: unusual because the Carola could not be there. She died in June 2010 leaving her book almost, but not quite, finished. And moving because her husband, Gary, completed the book for her and saw it through the press. He told us at the launch how, sitting at her desk surrounded by her copious notes, he felt close to her, and how comforting he had found that.
I first met Carola near twenty years ago when we were both teaching in Cambridge and I enjoyed following her late-flowering career as successful writer, first IMPROPER PURSUITS: THE SCANDALOUS LIFE OF LADY DI BEAUCLERK, then her fine books on the Bayeux Tapestry and on the stained glass in King’s College Chapel. I have GIRL IN A GREEN GOWN next to me and I am looking forward to reading it. I’ve just seen the TLS review which ends ‘this beautifully written book is a splendid testament to the intelligence, attention to detail, depth of research, and down-to-earth vision of a first-rate scholar.’ Yes, she was that alright, but to her family and friends she was so very much more. I miss her.