Lest we forget: Black Like Me and To Sir With Love

by Jamie Lutton

There are two outstanding short autobiographies, To Sir With Love by E. R. Braithwaite , and Black Like Me by John Howard Griffin. both published in 1960, that chronicle an era now almost as remote to us as the Civil War. That is the Civil Rights era; the period from the end of World War ll, 1945, and 1968, the death of Martin Luther King.

One book is by an American, the other is by a  British citizen. But they are both about the great struggle for human dignity that the black man faced then- the struggle for  human dignity in the face of blatant white hostility and racism.

Both these books pivot on a paradox to the readers of the time; a black WW ll veteran teaching 'ignorant'  poor white teenagers in London, and a white writer choosing to pass as black in the South, when it was  the war zone of the Civil Rights era.

The first book is more familiar because an excellent film adaptation was made of it at the time. To Sir With Love is the autobiography of a a few years in the life of a black veteran of the British Air force, an engineer, becoming a teacher. He could not get work in London after World War ll, and had to take up a teaching position in a slum school in East London, as that was the only place that would hire him.

Most of the book concerns his close observation of his teenage students, and the neighborhood in which they lived.  How he had great difficulty in getting their attention and respect, and what methods he used.
The film made from this book was a tool for recruiting teachers to teach in bad neighborhoods for decades after it was made.   This is a story of the making of a teacher, first, and the strange journey he took to become one, and what he made of his school,  the neighborhood, the other teachers, and most of all, the impoverished kids he taught.  This book lends itself to rereading ,as the author is  passionate about his profession, and his 'children'.It could be read for the atmosphere alone.

This book was very popular in America, as an  autobiography of a black man, telling his story of double triumph over racism and learning how to be a good teacher in a bad school.  The prejudice and hostility he faced, while job-hunting and trying to find a place to live in East London, was filled with xenophobia, as much as race hatred.  If you cannot find time to read the book - which I strongly advise you to do, as it is amazing - at least watch the movie, which is not dated at all. There still is a great problems in fairly and effectively teaching  children who have not been exposed to books in the home, and who live in  poverty.

The other autobiography, Black Like Me, is the account of a few months in the life of  another World War ll veteran. An American white man who had served in the South Pacific, been blinded in the war and then regained his sight over a decade later. He had written several books before this one.

Griffin wanted to know, by personal experience, what it is like to be black in the deep South. in the midst of the struggle for civil rights for black citizen   He decided to try to pass as black, and see for himself what the situation was, and report on it. .

He underwent a tricky and dangerous treatment to his skin, usually used to diminish birth marks,, plus the use of a tanning lamp and some stain. He then shaved his head and arms, and with the help of a few friends, traveled across the deep South as a black man in November and December of 1959, and kept a careful daily journal of his experiences.
What amazed me was the level of hatred leveled at black people (or as the book uses the word 'Negroes') by whites in the Deep South.

The Civil Rights movement had begun about six years earlier, with agitation for voting rights and desegregation. Black Americans and their allies were working through legal channels and by passive resistance to get justice from the legal system when they were wronged, and such issues  as the access to white beaches, bathrooms and restaurants.

At the time Griffin went South and passed for a few months, the white population he observed was  nearly universally harassing black men; black people in general. He was met with many, many hate filled stares, and contemptuous treatment by bus drivers, people on the street, people in shops, and observed similar treatment to other black people.

White youths several times called him the N name and others, and threatened to kill him for sport. He was refused service when he tried to use traveler's checks over and over, when he wanted to buy a bus ticket.

There was very few places that he could buy a meal or use the bathroom, as 'colored' bathrooms and restaurants were few and far between He went around and looked for work, as a black man, using his 'white' resume, and there was no interest in hiring him. In one place, the manager told him that there was a plan to drive all the blacks out of this state (Alabama) so that when equality came there would be no blacks there.

He hitchhiked, (which was more common 50 years ago)  and was met with weird sexual questioning (!!) repeatedly, or white drivers who boasted or raping black women (!!). This was not universal, he met with a few kind white people, but they were in the minority.

All the hatred seemed tinged with fear, the author surmised. The idea that blacks could have the right to vote, the right to eat where they pleased, good jobs, etc., terrified many of the whites in the deep South, so they were literally shaking with rage toward black people.

Griffin, a native of Dallas, Texas, had to move to Mexico for several years because of threats to his life and the lives of his family after the book was published. A group of white men in Mississippi beat him with chains and left for dead in 1964, so he knew how serious those threats were.

This era seems as remote to people in 2013 as the American Civil War.  But the American legal system - which targets black offenders with harsher treatment and longer sentences, has not faded. The War On Drugs has always been a war on poor blacks (and whites) as reflected by our huge prison population .

We cannot understand the struggle of the people of color in this country, (and in England) without understanding just how bad it was, 50 to 60 years ago. The many young white men who cursed Mr. Griffin and  threatened his life are senior citizens now; but their vitriol is still tainting the air.

Just go online, say, to Yahoo, and read the many nasty race based anonymous things said about President Obama and his family,  who have become lightning rods for lingering race hatred.

These books are a fine gift for any young friend who does not understand what Martin Luther King and all black citizens ware struggling for, and has only a hazy idea of how bad the American apartheid in the South was 54 years ago

Lest We Forget.  Well, that is said about all our wars and our veterans, since our Civil War. The veterans of this time should not be forgotten either. Men, women and children died to wrench the Deep South into the 20th century; we should honor them by remembering just how bad it was. These two short autobiographies are a good place to start reading about this era. .