Black Like Me by John Howard Griffin and A Place Called Heaven by Cecil Foster

Black Like Me by John Howard Griffin and A Place Called Heaven by Cecil Foster

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Black Like Me by John Howard Griffin and A Place Called Heaven by Cecil Foster


Racism cruelly and completely corrupts the heart, body and
intelligence not only of the oppressed, but it dehumanizes and
brutalizes even the oppressors. In the autobiographical diaries, Black
Like Me, written by John Howard Griffin, and A Place Called Heaven,
written by Cecil Foster, both main characters alter their lifestyles,
one in America, one in Canada, only to suffer raw hate, violence,
crudity and inhumanity from white racists. Through these experiences,
both men encounter many racial barriers that exist between whites and
blacks, which entirely destroys the dignity and self worth of the
blacks. However, the cruelty towards the blacks was not their most
intriguing conclusion. Through observation, communication and personal
experiences, both men came to realize that racism is not a part of
human nature, but rather a by-product of the human nature of the fear
of the unknown.

John Howard Griffen was a white journalist who truly wanted to
understand racism and how it affected the blacks. Griffen began to
research the rise of suicide tendencies in Southern blacks. However,
he realizes that it is very difficult to collect useful information
because "the Southern Negro will not tell the white man the truth",
(Griffen, pg.12). The reason the blacks would not speak to him is
because he is white and whites were ultimately the driving force
behind the suicide of many blacks. The blacks feared the white man,
even Griffen, who disagreed with racism. He observed the situation,
saw the fear and the hurt in the eyes of the Blacks when he came to
speak to them, and decided that "the only way to observe what it was
like to be black, was to become black", (Griffen, pg.21). Griffen, now
disguised convincingly as a black man, was able to observe racism from
a different perspective. Griffen observed how he was treated among his
"fellow" blacks in order to attain his examination of racism. "A
pleasant young Negro woman took my order and fixed my breakfast…The
man at the counter turned toward me and smiled, as though he wanted to
talk", (Griffen, pg.23). This proves that it is the white's and the
black's implanted and prohibiting fear that ultimately makes their
minds up about the opposite race. If Griffen were still white, there
is no doubt that the woman and the man would not have been so pleasant
and open towards him. He observed the fact that just because he was
black, like them, that they felt content and safe speaking and
interacting with him. Griffen then continues to board a bus.

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There, he
watches as white folk stare angrily at him while he sits and a white
woman stands, "I felt uncomfortable. I half rose from my seat to give
it to her, but Negroes behind me frowned disapproval", (Griffen,
pg.25). All his observations prove that both the white folk and the
blacks were so concerned with loving their own people that they began
to be horrified and disgusted with eachother, all the while, turning
their love for themselves into hatred for others. Like Griffen, much
of Foster's conclusions about racism stemmed from observation.

Foster immigrated to Canada to find a better life where he would not
be subject to extreme racism and segregation. Even though Canada did
in fact provide hope for "a brighter future" and did "embrace equality
and protection to a certain degree" (McKague, pg.75). Foster observed
his surroundings and realized that, even in the land of freedom,
racism was evident. He realized this when he found a small room for
rent in the "ghetto" of Toronto. There he spent days watching the
different people around him and how they interacted. He began to
realize that races were segregated into certain parts of the city and
there was often a lot of hostility between races. The whites lived
away from the blacks, and the Caribbean Blacks didn't like the
Canadian Blacks. Foster realized that each group feared the other and
would treat each other with derogatory statements and accusations in
order to feel more powerful than the other. "I often observed the
Caribbean Blacks and often heard them saying things like…Canadian
Blacks "don't know how to cook" and are "soft", "do not fight for
their rights", "the women are cheap and easy". I soon began to become
conscious of the fact that these people were simply ignorant of each
other", (Foster, pg.22). This sort of observation enabled Foster to
accept the fact that perhaps the white folk were merely frightened by
a race in which they knew absolutely nothing about. Along with
observation, Foster interacted with many white people, which enabled
him to come to such recognition.

Foster encountered many different people on his journey to and
residency in Canada. He held many conversations with the few white
folk who accepted him. It is through these conversations that he began
to realize that perhaps the racism he encounters is not simply out of
pure hatred of differences alone, but more accurately a fear and
misunderstanding of those differences. One conversation in particular
occurred when Foster is older and becomes a teacher after struggling
to do so for so many years. He speaks with one his white students who
he feels he has been on a "collision course since day one" with,
(Foster, pg.118). Foster asks this student why she is so uninterested
and seems subsequently uneasy in his class. He discovers that this
student was not the one with the problem. It was her parents. Her
parents were uneasy with the idea of a black teacher and were planting
their fear and stereotypes into their daughter causing even more
confusion. The girl tells Foster that she is "trying so hard to
believe what my parents tell me about blacks but I am finding it
difficult to find any merit to their stipulations. I don't know what
to think anymore. I think they are just scared for me for some reason.
But I know I am just as safe in this classroom than anywhere else, but
I can't help but feel a little frightened because what if they are
right?" (Foster, pg. 119). This proves to Foster that people are not
born with hatred, it is learned. Racism is not part of human nature,
it is taught. The white people were not educated on the blacks because
they chose not to surround themselves with them. They were afraid that
the blacks were there to cause trouble and danger to society. It is
not until they began to put their fears aside and question the
stereotypes, that the white folk began to see that there is no need to
dread the blacks. The only way either of these main characters could
come to such realizations was through their conversations and
interactions with the white people who were willing to talk to them.

Some conversations that Griffen participated in, that made man's fear
of each other even more evident, occurred when he was forced to
hitch-hike with several anonymous drivers. Griffin encountered a great
deal of curiosity from the people that stopped to give him
transportation. Most were white males, and they all bombarded Griffin
with questions. Questions were ranging from the size of his genitalia
to his sexual prowess. Most of the questions dealt with the
stereotypes dealing with the black male's libido, "I understand you
make more of an art- or maybe hobby out of your sex than we do",
(Griffen, pg.89). Griffin describes an almost perverse pleasure that
was achieved by the white males in asking such sexual questions during
these episodes. They asked questions about his past sexual experience
with white women, "A Negro'd be asking for the rope to get himself
mixed up with white women…Why, I had one of them admit to me just last
night that he craves white women", (Griffen, pg.88). One such driver
even asked Griffin to exit the car after Griffin refused to answer one
such question. This would seem to support the theory that humans are
curious, and maybe even a little frightened, of the unknown, (Steele,
pg.118). The constant craving for answers to apparently perverse
questions showed a fear of inadequacy on the part of the white male
drivers. By achieving the answers to these questions the white males
were possibly hoping to allay their fear that the black man was
sexually superior. Were this to be found true, this in turn would lead
to further racism. If the black male was in fact found to be sexually
superior to the white male, the white male would in turn continue to
"keep the black male down". It is this panic of inadequacy and assumed
superiority over the blacks that enable the main characters and the
reader to see that the underlying reason for racism is ones inability
to understand and accept differences simply because they are
frightened.

Experiencing racism first hand was yet another way these men
understood the reasons behind it. Griffen had the opportunity to
experience life both as a black man and as a white man. He faced many
situations where he personally experienced racism. One night, when he
was still a white man, Griffen strolled down the canal street passing
adult bars. "Come in and see the girls", hawkers called to him as he
passed by. Days later he strolled down the same street, passed the
same hawkers and, "they did not solicit me" Griffen wrote, (Griffen,
pg.44). The difference? The second time Griffen was disguised as a
black man. He describes the fear in their eyes and says, "Tonight they
looked at me and did not see me. They were too afraid to look",
(Griffen, pg.44). These hawkers were willing to let a white man in to
see their "girls" not knowing whether they were rapists or killers,
but refused the black man simply because they feared that all blacks
were dangerous to society. This proves that the white men are ignorant
and making false assumptions about blacks simply because they
misunderstand them and are frightened by them as a result of this
misinterpretation. Through an experience such as this one, it becomes
clearer to see the often-overlooked reason for racism, this being our
human nature to have fear of the unknown.

Similar to Griffen, Foster experienced many forms of racism and
discrimination. Foster recalls a time in his earlier years where he is
walking down the street and witnesses a woman being mugged. He runs to
help the woman who's purse was being stolen from her, and as he
approaches her, intending to help, the woman "looked up at him with
terror and began to run", (Foster, pg.45).

At first he could not understand why this woman would flee from his
aid, and in a matter of seconds he was reminded of the stereotypical
world he lived in, "Of course she would run. She's been told and has
learned that black men are dangerous. After all, it was a black man
who robbed her. There is nothing I could have said to assure this
woman that I was any different. In her terrified eyes, we were are all
the same" (Foster, pg.46). This proves that fear and misunderstanding
is ultimately the basis for our judgment and in this case, racism. The
woman did not have any concrete attack on Foster personally. She did
not know if he was a criminal or a loving father, and she did not
care. She ran because she feared all black people. She feared all
black people because she did not understand them. This woman
represents all of white society for both of these men. Blacks were not
so much hated because they were different, as they were feared because
of their differences, which ultimately brought forth hatred.

Through each man's observations, conversations and personal
experiences, he learned that there is no fundamental difference in the
nature of the white man as compared to the nature of the black man.
There seems to be a desire to survive. The white man attempted to
survive by making the black man a "second citizen", which is to say
"lesser citizen". The black man attempted to survive by banding
together as a race. This helped the race survive through a feeling of
empathy. If a human feels that he is not alone, it tends to give a
more powerful sense of strength. Since the white person was unfamiliar
with the black man, there was a sense of fear of the black man. Racism
is merely a defense mechanism learned through society. It is in this
manner that the white man "saved" himself from the black man. The
white man saw only his own need for self-preservation. He feared the
black man because of the white man's ignorance of the black man. The
white man feared that the black man was different than the white man,
and therefore dangerous. It is from this fear that racism springs.
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