Black Like Me, A 2020 Story

I remember reading John Howard Griffin’s book, Black Like Me, when I was in high school. The recommender, a white teacher, had told me that it was a poignant book about race in the United States. She applauded the author for his bravery, for his resolve to wear Black face in the 1950s segregated south just to see what it was like to be Black in America. She was amazed that a white man could be so empathetic about the race problem that he would want to experience it himself.

I didn’t understand why a white man would have to pretend to be Black when he could’ve just asked Black people about their real-life experiences. He could’ve read the writing of Black folks who were being consumed by the racist south (and north and midwest and west). Instead, he underwent a medical procedure and ultra-violet treatment to temporarily darken his skin and pass as a Black man in an effort to excavate our lives. Instead, he took money from Sepia Magazine, a publication owned by a Jewish American man and geared toward a Black audience, to fund his exploration. Instead, he kept a journal of his experiences as a “Black person” and turned his journal entries into a book.

Griffin wasn’t the first to do something like this. Ray Sprigle, another white journalist, had a similar idea a decade before. His book, In the Land of Jim Crow, is an account of his journey through the south passing as a Black man for 30 days. As Sprigle wrote:

“I quit being white, and free, and an American citizen when I climbed aboard that Jim Crow coach. . . . From then on, until I came up out of the South four weeks later, I was black, and in bondage — not quite slavery but not quite freedom, either.’’

Before it was a book, it was serialized newspaper story, complete with entries like: I Traveled, Ate Black; Acquiring a Negro Appearance; Does the Negro Hate the White Man; and What Do Negroes Really Want. Sprigle’s account and acclaim gave Griffin the precedent he needed to take the experiment a step further. Instead of 30 days, why not six weeks? Instead of trying walnut stain, but then deciding to just pass as Black due to the light color of so many Black folks, why not undergo surgery to actually change the skin color? Instead of having a Black person as a guide, why not go it alone?

I’m thinking about these two works in the midst of the Krug, Dolezal, McLaughlin era. Jessica Krug, an associate professor of African and Latin American studies at George Washington University, presented herself as variations of Black for her entire career, stealing grants, scholarships, and lecture possibilities from actual Black scholars. In her lengthy treatise, she doesn’t appear to apologize or show remorse for her actions even if she does know that her actions were anti-Black. She doesn’t acknowledge the ways that her various actions are steeped in white supremacy. And she should know, she studies these things after all.

Her actions connect to those of BethAnn McLaughlin, a professor at Arizona State University, who pretended to be a Native American woman on Twitter for years, only to come clean after she killed off her fake persona in a COVID-19 hoax. Krug’s actions most certainly connect to those of Rachel Dolezal, a former lecturer of African Studies at Eastern Washington University who has since changed her name to Nkechi Amare Diallo. She portrayed herself as a passing Black woman and rose to the rank of NAACP chapter president. Once discovered as an imposter, she was dismissed from her university position, but she also landed a book deal and a Netflix documentary for her trouble.

As Critical Race Theory Scholar Frances Lee Ansley said, white supremacy is:

“a political, economic and cultural system in which whites overwhelmingly control power and material resources, conscious and unconscious ideas of white superiority and entitlement are widespread, and relations of white dominance and non-white subordination are daily reenacted across a broad array of institutions and social settings.”

In each case, these white people used their whiteness to consume Black and Browness. They have so much control over power and material resources that they believe they can even own Black and Brown identities. They are so superior and entitled that they believe themselves as having the ability to live and be Black if they choose. They have the ability to put on physical or digital Black/Brown faces because they believe they own the rights to those faces. And, when they are done (or forced to be done because they’ve been found out), they access the property of whiteness, which shields them from repercussion and grants them monetary compensation for being brave enough to share their stories.

With all of this in the background, I remember the white female teacher recommending Black Like Me. I remember how her face lit up because she could recommend a book that could possibly connect with my experience as a Black person in the United States. I remember how she raved about it as an authentic account of someone who has truly experienced the evils of racism. I remember how reading that book made me angry because someone thought that parading around as Black was a revolutionary idea, especially when it was and is dangerous to be Black in America. I think of how I continue to be upset that white people can choose when, how, where, and for how long they want to put on a costume that resembles who I am everyday.

In truth, I long for the day when I can be Black Like Me and can feel as safe in my own skin as the white people do when they pretend.

I write about Black women and girls, speculative fiction texts (books, film, tv), and social justice. Follow me on Twitter @SR_Toliver.

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