Part three in the series (I and II). Black Like Me by John Howard Griffin. A study into racial prejudice in North America’s Deep South in 1959. I read this book again while traveling yesterday, just to get to this short extract which reveals both the wisdom of the book and it’s inherent contradiction:
[Griffin is invited to give a lecture to an audience of Protestants and Catholics about racism in the south, afterwards he attends a reception hosted by the whites who had organised the lecture and one black guest]
“We were introduced. I was told in his presence just how proud the community was of its black industrial psychologist and how he had “gained acceptance” in the most perfect way. The professor of Bible who had initiated the project was jubilant. He remarked loudly what a great success the project was and how marvelous that the Protestants and Catholics had finally worked together to make it a success.
“I view this as a historic night,” he announced. Then turning to the black industrial psychologist, he asked, “Don’t you see this night as a historic turning point for this community?” The black doctor, in a voice of perfect calm, replied, “Frankly, I’m not too excited.” The Bible professor’s face clouded, and he said, “What do you mean?” The doctor said, “It’s true that I have a good job in this town, and I seem to be respected, and I am certainly paid a wage commensurate with my skills. But – so long as I have to house my wife and children in a town twenty miles away because I can’t buy, rent, lease or build a home here, don’t expect me to get too excited over your ‘historic turning points.'”
I watched, fascinated as the group of whites began to growl and the professor of Bible reddened with anger. “Well, I’ll tell you one thing,” he said. “If you’re goign to be that cynical, I don’t see how you can expect us to do anything for you.” I heard a local minister mumble to a lady standing beside him, “I knew there’d be trouble if we invited that black man…” The Bible professor lost most of his self-control. He battered at the lack of graciousness and courtesy that he perceived in the black doctor. The doctor remained calm, lethal in his replies, unshaken.
I watched until the professor was almost screaming his anger and then stepped in. “Isn’t this remarkable?” I said. “Here you gave me a standing ovation for telling you this same kind of truth. Now you have a black man, far more knowledgeable than I could be, who is honouring you with a truth, and you are furious with him. You will hear it from me and applaud me for saying it, but you can’t stand it yet from him.” (Black Like Me, pp. 178-179)