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John Howard Griffin | Biography

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Early Life and a French Education

John Howard Griffin was born on June 16, 1920, in Dallas, Texas. His parents, John and Lena Griffin, were both musically inclined: his father performed publicly as an Irish tenor before he took up sales work in the food industry. His mother was a concert pianist and instructor.

Griffin himself was an accomplished musician and an independent thinker at an early age. Dissatisfied with the Texas public high school he attended, he wrote to the Lycée Descartes in Tours, France, seeking admission. His request was granted, and at age of 15 Griffin sailed on his own to Tours to learn French and prepare himself for earning a university education abroad. Upon graduation, Griffin earned scholarships to study literature at the University of Poitiers and medicine at the Ecole de Médecine in Tours. He also combined his interests in music and medicine by working alongside the director of the Asylum of Tours for a study observing the therapeutic effects of Gregorian chants on criminally insane patients.

In the middle of his work at the asylum, World War II (1939–45) broke out. All the French doctors and medical students were drafted, leaving 20-year-old Griffin in charge of more than 100 patients. He became involved with the French Resistance and sometimes used Asylum ambulances to help transport German Jewish refugees through France. This eventually made him a wanted man by the Gestapo. Griffin went into hiding and eventually was smuggled out of France. In Black Like Me, Griffin draws parallels more than once between the violent anti-Semitism he witnessed before escaping German-occupied France and the terrifying racism he experienced in the American South.

The South Pacific

Griffin enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps in 1941 and received training as a radio operator. He was then stationed in the Solomon Islands for 39 months as an intelligence officer and language expert. There, he was assigned to study the native culture and translate the local dialect so the U.S. military could get information about Japanese strategies and positions in the Pacific theater. Griffin's sustained immersion in a foreign culture allowed him to reconsider his initial impression of the Pacific islanders as primitive. Perhaps the most striking example of this change of heart lies in the fact that Griffin married a native woman in a traditional island ceremony. Griffin later dissolved his ties with the woman and never wrote about this short-lived liaison. After converting to Catholicism in 1951, he obtained permission from the Church to remarry. He then married Elizabeth Holland with whom he had four children.

Blindness

In 1946, while stationed in the South Pacific, Griffin was injured in a bomb explosion that caused him to lose his eyesight completely over the course of the following year. Disabled, he returned to the United States and was forced to abandon plans for a medical career. He returned to France where he sought religious healing in monastic communities and looked for advice from other blind men about how to cope with his new situation. By this time, his parents had moved to a farm in rural Mansfield, Texas, and Griffin lived with them while he adjusted to life as a blind man. He learned Braille and typing skills at the Lighthouse for the Blind in Fort Worth. Griffin also took up farm work, but he was interested in writing. During this sightless decade, he wrote a number of essays, numerous short stories, and two novels. One of these, his autobiographical novel The Devil Rides Outside, was the subject of a landmark Supreme Court case ruling overturning the Obscene Book Act in 1957. That same year, 1957, Griffin's eyesight suddenly returned. For the first time, he saw his wife and four children.

Racial Injustice in America

Griffin's time in the Solomon Islands, his experience as a blind man, and his deepening Catholic faith gave him new perspectives on racial issues in the United States. In the late 1950s, he began writing for Sepia magazine, a photojournalistic publication featuring articles particularly relevant to African American culture. In 1959 Griffin embarked on an ethnographic and sociological study to understand the true experience of being a black man in the American South. He consulted with a dermatologist about how to darken his skin pigmentation temporarily. By combining a medical treatment for vitiligo, long days under an ultraviolet lamp, and a topically applied stain, he successfully darkened his skin and was able to pass as a black man in the South for six weeks. Vitiligo is a skin disorder in which pigment is lost on areas of the skin and which results in white spots or patches on the body. Griffin wrote a series of articles for Sepia magazine based on the journals he kept during his immersion in African American daily life. These articles eventually became the book Black Like Me, published in 1961. This controversial book won him critical acclaim among civil rights activists and humanitarian citizens worldwide. But it also generated threats and violence from white supremacists and segregationists. Griffin was badly beaten by a Ku Klux Klan member in 1975.

Reception

Critics were uncertain how to treat Black Like Me, in part because the book's genre was unclear. Griffin sold the piece to Sepia magazine as a photojournalistic study, but the book was also part ethnographic and sociological study and part philosophical treatise on the nature of race relations and the racial and social constructions of identity. Reviews were divided. Some treated Griffin as a daring investigative journalist who risked his life to get an intimate and shocking story. Others were incredulous at the extent of his conversion, arguing that his results were likely tainted by his inability to convince anyone—white or black—that he was a black man. As time has passed, readers have found it increasingly condescending for a white man to presume to understand the black experience in the Jim Crow South of the 1950s based on a limited time spent there as an adult.

After Black Like Me

Griffin spent the years following publication of Black Like Me writing and lecturing internationally about race relations in the United States. He also worked with members of the black and white communities across the country to build bridges of communication in pursuit of greater economic and social justice for African Americans. His dedication to working for a fairer society took its toll on him psychologically and physically. Griffin suffered from diabetes and cardiac trouble for years prior to his death on September 9, 1980. While rumors circulated that he had died from skin cancer caused by the treatments he took to alter his skin pigment, the actual cause of Griffin's death was a cerebral hemorrhage following a series of heart attacks.
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