Saturday, November 1, 2014

Selections: John Howard Griffin's Prison of Culture

My night-blooming cereus in late August 2014.


Prison of Culture: Beyond Black Like Me.  John Howard Griffin.  Edited by Roberto Bonazzi. Wings Press, San Antonio, 2011.  ISBN: 978-0-916727-82-6. $16.95, paper.  Still available.

A friend of mine, Roberto Bonazzi, sent me this book not long ago, and I’ve been browsing in it.  Some years ago I read Griffin’s book Black Like Me, the story of how he dyed his skin with black walnut juice and set out in the South in the late 1950s to see what racism felt like as a black man.  A mind-awakening book.  Still available.  I can’t recommend it highly enough.

It strikes me now that, even though John Howard Griffin, the author of Black Like Me, died in 1980, the way he describes the racist prison that many, maybe most, Americans were still in, is still true. A lot has changed since the era of Martin Luther King, Jr. And Malcolm X, the passage of the Civil Rights Act, but still white and black Americans very rarely communicate.  

All my life, since age seven at least, I have tried to stand on the black-white line and erase as much of it as I could, to move out of race to human.  We are all human.  Why is that so hard to see? Why, in the North Carolina of 2014 does our state government try to suppress the black vote and take other insidious measures to bring back racist thinking and behavior?  Our President is a black man, but that has not changed this “prison of culture.”   His election may even have triggered these new and awful reactions which led to so many backwards thinking politicians getting elected in recent years here in North Carolina and elsewhere.

It did me good to browse in this book, so I wanted to share some of Griffin’s experiences and thinking. The book has nine essays on racism and five on spirituality.  Here are some excerpts which I myself want to remember:

In his remembrance of Griffin, in 1980, the year Griffin died, Studs Terkel wrote:

When he transformed himself in Black Like Me, he was responding to the challenge: To wake up some morning in the oppressed’s skin. To think human rather than white.  To feel human.
... During my last visit, he lay on his dying bed.  He despaired of the mindless official optimism and the unofficial cynicism and yet he clung to the slender reed of hope.  “Life is a risk,” Griffin told me during our last visit.  “And what a horror if you don’t face those risks.  If you don’t, you end up being utterly paralyzed.  You don’t ever do anything.” Page ix.

At the beginning of the book, Griffin’s words:

Take the teaching of logic out of a civilization and reason is reduced to the squalor of prejudice.  All of the classic fallacies of logic then become a sort of weird virtue and man seeks by loudness, fear and violence to win causes that could not be won by rational persuasion.”  1960. p. x.

From "Privacy of Conscience," p. 3

I think we have to struggle to grant every man the maximum amount of freedom and so I loathe every kind of totalitarianism.  I don’t care where it comes from.  I loathe anything that impugns a man’s right to fulfill himself. ... We have to work to assure every man the maximum right to function as fully and freely as possible. There is no such thing as an inherent right to impugn someone else’s right, and it is an utter distortion to claim the freedom to deny someone else’s freedom.  We must see that all men truly have equal rights and then just leave everybody alone.  This trying to gobble everyone up, to make him conform to our individual or group prejudices, our religious or philosophical convictions–and seeking to suppress him if he doesn’t–is the deepest cultural neurosis I know....  Any man–the moment he impugns my rights or your rights–must be battled, because he is involved in a terrible thing; he is involved in the destruction of the common good.  P. 3.

Page 5:  When racism begins, the first thing that goes out the window is respect for due process of law.

From “The Intrinsic Other,” p. 9: ... It is a common anthropological truism that the “prisoners” of any given culture tend to regard those of almost any other culture, no matter how authentic that culture, as merely underdeveloped versions of their own, imprisoning culture.

“Profile of a Racist,” p. 13.  I have encountered two types of racists.  The one who has no respect for one whom Jean Lacroix called the Other–in other words, for any form of human life other than his own.  This type of racist allows his lack of respect to form the permissive basis for cruelty, sadism, violence and murder.  He feels he has the right to indulge those subhuman lusts.... The other kind of racist abhors, or claims to, the orgiastic cruelties, but has no respect for life, for the living and breathing and suffering of the Other.  He denounces the lynching but clings hard to the very ideology that makes lynching permissive and even inevitable.  He weaves the lynch rope that he himself would not use.  He is the fine gentleman who speaks fine words: “We have to take these things slowly.  You can’t legislate morality.  It may take a few more generations.  You can’t cram justice down people’s throats.”

In “American Racism in the 60s”:

As Father August Thompson, a member of the Black Priests Caucus, remarked when he was chided by white religious colleagues for “stepping out of line” by telling the truth too bluntly: “Blessed are the peacemakers for they will catch it from all sides.”  P. 58.

Very often I will be warmly received by large audiences in the North, but invariably some well-meaning white person comes up after a lecture, offers thanks for clarifying the principles which we call American and then adds, “But of course we have a different situation here.”  We have become a nation of exceptions to the very principles which we applaud, that we claim to espouse.  It is not so much that we do not repudiate the pattern; it is that merely by acquiescing to it, we acquiesce to the racism that is ultimately as destructive of the consenting and dominating group as it is of the victim group.  It is this that black people see so clearly, and really cannot understand how we fail to see; namely the immense cost to the whole community when racists dominate it with fear and violence.  Inevitably, we have been led to the predictable condition of Mississippi, which has become a police state. P. 65. 1968.

From “A Time to Be Human”:

Today, in 1977, many believe that racism and prejudice are things of the past in this country, and that civil rights legislation and greater enlightenment have conquered discrimination.  It is true that things have changed in the past fifteen years.  Blacks and other minority people can eat and find accommodations and most can vote.  But it is also clear that racism and prejudice exist everywhere.  No country is spared. 
...  The deepest shock I experienced as a black man was the realization that everything is utterly different when one is a victim of racism.  To my mind this country is involved in a profound tragedy.  The problems of racism will never be solved until we can learn to communicate with one another.  Yet we have never listened to the words of minority spokesmen who have told us truths about ourselves and our country.  P.68.


Here we are in 2014, in our new century, and we are still a divided society, tragically oblivious to the full meaning of our human nature, our community life, and the justice and liberty for all that most of us believe in.  Time to think and search our consciences about this.  Time to stop making people “other” and in effect dehumanizing them.  We can’t afford, as a human race on a planet troubled with more and more environmental and climate change hazards, not to love our fellow man and woman, all of them.  
Judy Hogan


  1. Excellent blog, Judy. Don't you think Obama's drop in approval is due to a subtle racism? I do. Those denigrating him are nit picking things that has happened that he had no control over; ISIS, Syria, Ebola, etc. Our country doesn't want to be involved in another war, and yet those people are claiming it's his fault for ISIS and Syria, etc. They've pretty much given up on using Obamacare as a rallying cry, because to there surprise, after a rough start, it's proving to work well and most people are satisfied with it. If anyone is to blame for the radical Islamists, I'd say it was Bush, Chaney and Rumsfeld who had us attack Iraq that turned much of the Muslims against us for interfering. True, Sadam Hussein was an evil ruler, but there are plenty others just as bad. As for the economy, it has improved, but not for most of us, and that's the fault of Congress, in my opinion. Nothing Barack Obama would suggest to correct this, would the House vote for. Sorry if I'm ranting, but I get so angry and upset at this country being run by the billionaires, who are pouring vast amounts of money into politics to keep their billionaire status as it is.

  2. Thanks for commenting, Gloria. I struck me how things are moving back to racism. Here at least, my black neighbors are voting. I'll be working at the polls tomorrow morning, hoping we can get our best people elected here and for Congress. It's easy to be overwhelmed. I think you're right about Obama. My only quibble with him has been allowing fracking, and I've written to him several times about that.