I learned about John Howard Griffin for the first time this week.
In November 1959, in an attempt to better understand the Black American experience, journalist John Howard Griffin underwent a medical treatment to temporarily darken his skin and, for six weeks, placed himself in the shoes of those who suffered under the oppressive weight of Jim Crow laws in an attempt to foster greater empathy and understanding among his predominantly white readership.
Griffin chronicled his experiences in a diary that would later become a bestselling book, which I purchased this week.
I can’t believe someone did this and that it took me this long to hear about it.
It also reminded me of this:
In 1986, the movie “Soul Man” depicted Mark Watson, a pampered son of a wealthy family about to attend Harvard Law School with his best friend. When his father refuses to pay tuition, and Mark is denied a student loan, the only scholarship he sees is for African Americans, so he decides to cheat by using tanning pills, in a larger dose than prescribed, to appear as an African American.
Watson then sets out for Harvard, naïvely believing that black people have no problems at all in American society, only to discover this is not true.
Not unlike the journey of John Howard Griffin, albeit for more nefarious reasons.
As I was reading about John Howard Griffin, I thought about the role that C. Thomas Howell played in “Soul Man.”
I’m certain it would never be allowed today.
Howell essentially spent the entire film in the form of blackface.
Here’s what surprised me the most:
You can still watch “Soul Man” today. It’s available on Amazon, Apple TV, and YouTube TV.
I almost always despise canceling or banning of books, films, and the like because they no longer adhere to modern sensibilities. Art is reflective of its time, so while we may think that a movie like “Revenge of the Nerds” is a story filled with glorified rape and sexual assault, it should also continue to exist as a historical artifact of a time and place that thankfully no longer exists.
But “Soul Man?”
I’m happy it still exists and is available for streaming, but I’m shocked it is.