The Veil Between Us

Editor’s Note: This post comes from our Blog Partner, Hope Sings So Beautiful.  It was written by Chris Pramuk of Xavier University.  I particularly appreciate this post for the way Pramuk questions the language of contemporary movements while holding sacred the power of phrases like “Black Lives Matter.”  The post is a long read, but a wonderful and introspective one, especially when so much press is being made over the many political moves and non-moves at the Vatican Synod!  It has raised many questions for me, and I hope to offer a response soon. We have posted the first part of the post below, but please visit Hope Sings to read the full reflection.

Lately I have been rereading Black Like Me, John Howard Griffin’s unforgettable account of his 1959 experiment in “becoming black.” On the first page, in a few jarringly direct lines, Griffin explains why he decides to disguise himself as a black man and descend into the Deep South:

How else except by becoming a Negro could a white man hope to learn the truth? The southern Negro will not tell the white man the truth. He long ago learned that if he speaks a truth unpleasing to the white, the white would make life miserable for him. The only way I could see to bridge the gap between us was to become a Negro. I decided I would do this.

John Howard Griffin

Griffin, like me, was a Catholic writer, and lifelong student of music. At age 39, he had a wife and kids, a job, a career. He had a lot to lose. Yet, incalculably more than me, his desire to “bridge the gap” between himself and the reality of “being black” in America transcended his fears about the extreme physical and emotional costs of his experiment in solidarity.

Of course, as a white man, he had an escape route. Nevertheless for six weeks he went all in, body, mind, and spirit, radically surrendering his own skin privilege and power in solidarity with his black brothers and sisters. More than anything he desired, as much as possible in his circumstances, to level the playing field, so as to taste something of a reality and truth “beyond Otherness,” as he later wrote of the experience.

One of my students recently wrote as follows about a scene in Black Like Me that seems to have burned itself into her consciousness:

At one point in the book Griffin splits candy bars among a black family he is staying with for the night. One of the children was salivating so much from the chocolate that her mother unconsciously wiped the saliva off with her finger and put it in her own mouth. As the family went to bed, they closely embraced each other to escape the dark cold night that often welcomed mosquitoes. This love and sense of family holds no racial boundary. Race literally is the surface of one’s true being. Griffin found God that night while sleeping on the floor. He was black, but most importantly, he was human.

I think my student gets it exactly right. By drawing near and not pulling away, by breaking through the race veil bodily, intellectually, emotionally, Griffin became more human. By becoming more open, more vulnerable, more radically present to the other, Griffin “found God that night while sleeping on the floor.”

The cynic might counter that Griffin’s experiment failed before it even started. No white man, being white, can truly know or experience at the deepest emotional level what it is to “be black” in America. Race is more than “the surface” of one’s true being. By virtue of race we are, if for historical and cultural factors beyond our control, essentiallyclosed off from one another. No appeal to God or earnest conviction of faith—such as the belief that every person shares in and reflects sacramentally the image of God—can remove the race veil. To the cynic or even the theological realist, for whom everything is sifted through the lens of social power and privilege, because Griffin is white, his perception of black experience could only be “apparent.” It was not real. And therefore, when push comes to shove, his account is not really trustworthy.

In 1979, twenty years after the events of Black Like Me, Griffin looked back and measured the contours of what he describes in the book as his own profound transformation:

Having recognized the depths of my own prejudices when I first saw my black face in the mirror, I was grateful to discover that within a week as a black man the old wounds were healed and all the emotional prejudice was gone. It had disappeared for the simple reason that I was staying in the homes of black families and I was experiencing at the emotional level, for the first time in thirty-nine years, what I had known intellectually for a long time. I was seeing that in families everything is the same for all people. . . . I was experiencing all this as a human parent and it was exactly as I experienced my own children.

A few years ago, we invited Griffin’s daughter, Suzy Griffin Campbell, to speak at Xavier University. When one of our students asked her why she thought her father did what he did, after a short pause, she replied, “I think he did it for the children.” She didn’t specify whosechildren. He did it for the children. He did it for all children.

….Read the rest of the post at Hope Sings So

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