Prison of Culture: Beyond Black Like Me
Paperback, 160 pages
This companion volume to the Wings Press 50th Anniversary edition of Black Like Me (2011) features John Howard Griffin's later writings on racism and spirituality, including essays that appear in book form for the first time as well as sections from his later books about racism, The Church and the Black Man (1969) and A Time To Be Human (1977), which have been out of print for decades. These works on racism reveal a progressive evolution in thinking, as Griffin traveled across America and Europe during the 1960s and 1970s, lecturing to predominantly-white student audiences at the request of the African-American Civil Rights leaders Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Roy Wilkins of the NAACP, and activist-author Dick Gregory.
Griffin's development "beyond" the perspective of Black Like Me also meant further exploration into his ethical stand in the human rights struggle and deeper introspection into the spiritual dimension of the nonviolent struggle for justice and equality inherent in the views of Thoreau, Gandhi, King and Thomas Merton. The second part focuses on his spiritual grounding in the Catholic monastic tradition in illuminating meditations on suffering and in his "Final Reflections" on communication, justice and dying.
Edited by Griffin scholar,editor and lecturer, Robert Bonazzi.
- A Remembrance by Studs Terkel
- Introduction: Beyond Black Like Me, by Robert Bonazzi
- Essays on Racism
- Privacy of Conscience
- The Intrinsic Other
- Profile of a Racist
- On Killers of the Dream
- Requiem for A Martyr
- Racist Sins of Christians
- Malcolm X
- American Racism in the Sixties
- From A Time To Be Human
- Essays on Spirituality
- Poulenc Behind the Mask
- Fraternal Dialogue
- The Little Brothers
- The Terrain of Physical Pain
- Final Reflections
Griffin never failed to astonish. It was his capacity to go beyond himself. He suffered more ills than any man should be heir to—you name it, he had it.
Let's not even talk about that awful beating he took in the kidneys when the Klan caught up with him along some southern dirt road. When he died, his wife Elizabeth said it was of "everything."
But he had endured so long because he was possessed by the Other.
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. Feeling, as much as understanding, is what he was all about.
In his empathy for the Other, he understood the tragedy of the child who belongs to the oppressor species, living in darkness. The Klansman's kid, the Nazi's child, the bigot's offspring. It was this "dying of the light" he most raged against.
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."
I can't help but reflect on the other roads this gifted man might have traveled had he not been possessed by the Other. Several literary critics have conjectured that had John Howard Griffin been less committed, he might have become an important American novelist. As matters stand, he was merely an important human being.
Let's settle for that.
— Studs Terkel, Chicago, 1980
Highly recommended. All levels/libraries.CHOICEApril 2012
Reviewed by T. D. Moodie, Hobart and William Smith Colleges
This beguiling book draws one more intimately into the world of John Howard Griffin. Rooted in a particular brand of Roman Catholic asceticism, Griffin's motivations for his "experiment" become clear. Griffin's was a life committed to social justice. This collection of writings, chosen to complement Black like Me, provides a portrait of the effects of racial discrimination on Americans of color, as well as insight into Griffin's reasons for his experiment and his fundamental human decency. On one level, this is a simple book. On another, Griffin's deceptively plain language reveals the extraordinary spiritual depth of this gentle man. It also introduces readers to the complex heritage of Christian traditions both in opposing and in maintaining the racial system in the US at the time of the civil rights movement. Readers will come away from it with renewed respect for the spiritual simplicity and clear vision of a devout man called to prophesy against social evils. Summing Up: Highly recommended. All levels/libraries.
Fine Essays from a Writer of ConscienceTexas Books in ReviewFall 2011
Reviewed by Kenneth W. Davis
Competently edited and arranged by Robert Bonazzi, with a remembrance by Studs Terkel, Prison of Culture is a valuable collection of essays by a creative, daring, and moral individual who is better known for his amazingly courageous Black Like Me. Most of these essays were first published before Griffin's death in 1980. Although in an early essay in this collection, Griffin argues that he is just speaking his own conscience, he is indeed a voice of conscience for people everywhere opposed to injustice, racism, bigotry, intolerance, and prejudice.
Collectively, the sensitive and intense essays in this volume offer a necessary if at times troubling look at an ugly facet of historical race relations and shadings of moral conduct not just in America but throughout the world. Griffin was a broadly educated and genuinely sophisticated person with a demanding sense of what is just, fair, kind, and compassionate. He did not always find such qualities in his peers, and he had the courage to cite with powerful prose the many instances in which peoples' failure to recognize human equality caused so much injustice.
His trenchant essays are written with intensity and passion. His prose style is clear and forceful. People who grew up during the years of struggle for equal rights will find in Prison of Culture commentary that brings alive those times of intense moral crises. Readers today will find in these essays the truth in American philosopher George Santanya's statement that those who are ignorant of the past are doomed to repeat the past's mistakes. The prejudice and injustice of the past must never be forgotten. Prison of Culture should exist for modern readers who may have let themselves lose sight of the wrongs that still persist. In Black Like Me and in the recently published essays, John Howard Griffin's reputation as a voice of moral conscience is strong, clear, and essential. Readers can be grateful to Wings Press for publishing this grouping of essays. To grasp their significance, no cursory summations in a review will suffice. The essays must be read in their entirety.
Kenneth W. Davis, a fellow of the Texas Folklore Society and of the West Texas Historical Association, is a Professor Emeritus of English at Texas Tech University.
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