Biography of Black Like Me Author John Howard Griffin Part 2

About the author of Black Like Me John Howard Griffin, biography and history of the writer and civil rights activist.


JOHN HOWARD GRIFFIN (1920-1980). Writer, civil rights activist, musicologist.

Black Like Me was a remarkable project, but Griffin was a remarkable man. In 1936 he went to France to study at the Lycee Descartes in Tours. He graduated in 1938 and went on to study psychiatry, working as an assistant in an asylum. He worked on experiments using musical therapy to treat the insane, and his research led him to pursue a career in musicology.

At the outbreak of W.W. II, Griffin joined with the Defense Passive, a French organization that helped evacuate Austrian and German Jewish refugees fleeing the Nazis. He was almost caught by the Gestapo but eventually returned safely to America. Once home, he enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps and was stationed in the South Pacific. During his tour of duty he studied the ethnology and anthropology of the people of the islands around him. Griffin suffered severe head wounds in a bomber explosion; these later were complicated when the hospital he was in was hit. A a result of these injuries, he began to lose his eyesight in 1946.

Even though partially blind, Griffin resumed his musical studies in France at the Monastery of Solesmes in Sarthe. After earning a certificate d'etudes, he experienced complete loss of vision. He settled on his parents' farm near Fort Worth, Tex. There, at the urging of noted drama critic John Mason Brown, he began to write. His first book, The Devil Rides Outside, was a semiautobiographical novel dealing with "the struggle between the spirit and the flesh" of a monastery student. It was banned in some parts of the country and was the subject of an obscenity hearing in the Supreme Court.

Griffin was married in 1953. He later developed spinal malaria and lost the use of his legs for two years. But he continued to write, and his second novel, Nuni, was completed in 1956. Nuni was again semiauto-biographical, the story of an American college professor who crashlands on a Pacific island inhabited by a primitive tribe. In January of 1957, as he was walking unaided from his workshop to the farmhouse, Griffin suddenly regained his vision after 10 years of blindness. Upon seeing his wife and two children for the first time (he later had two more children) he said, "They are more beautiful than I ever expected. . . . I am astonished, stunned, and thankful."

Shortly afterward Griffin undertook the Black Like Me project. Less than a year later he began to suffer bone deterioration and tumors. By 1970 he had undergone 70 operations. But in the interim he worked, lectured, taught, and wrote to correct the racial situation that had so affected him during his weeks as a black man. In 1964 he predicted the "massive and deep bloodshed" that was to come in the black uprisings that soon erupted in cities and towns across the country.

Griffin's failing health slowly forced him to stay closer and closer to home. He kept up his writing, and by the time of his death on Sept. 9, 1980, of diabetes complications he had published several books and numerous shorter works. In one of the last of these he wrote, "I write not because I understand anything and want to expose, but because I understand nothing. . . . I write to seek understanding."

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