Langston Hughes opened my mind many years ago and showed me a painful glimpse into his broken soul. The novelist John Howard Griffin inspired by Langston Hughes' poem Dream Variations, embodied Atticus Finch and did not mind his business. He discovered the night side of the American Life. "You never really understand a person until you consider things from their point of view… until you climb into his skin and walk around in it" (To Kill a Mockingbird, 85-87). John Howard Griffin did just that. This exceptional American journalist, climbed inside the skin of a black man, almost sixty years ago, and walked around in it, deep, deep inside the South.
I mentioned Father Tom McKillop in my previous posts. He was the man who gently nudged me towards Viktor Frankl and his search for meaning. It seems that once you become fully human, fully alive, you are blessed with unbelievable abundance. At the same time, Father Tom also introduced me to his dear friend John Howard Griffin. I never had a chance to meet him because he died five years before I even arrived in Canada, but it is never too late, through art and literature, to know people that we have never met. As a young man I read and felt the sting of Black Like Me, and that has made all the difference.
You can read his book for yourself. It is burdensome read, but do read it slowly and carefully. There is much truth about our human nature there. It is full of timeless insights.
"If a white man became a Negro in the Deep South, what adjustments would he have to make? What is it like to experience discrimination based on skin color, something over which one has no control? This speculation was sparked again by a report that lay on my desk. The report mentioned the rise in suicide tendency among Southern Negroes. This did not mean that they killed themselves, bur rather that they had reached a stage where they simply no longer cared whether they lived or died" (Black Like Me, 1).
Thank you for taking the time to read my thoughts. I have no idea who you are or why you have chosen to stop by here, but I am very grateful that you have. It is with you in mind that I labour.
I love to tell stories and I'm about to tell a story you will not find anywhere else.
One evening I invited my former College professor John McRae to my apartment in Scarborough, along with Father Tom, and some fellow classmates. It was a very informal gathering. I'm not even sure I served food but we were all so engrossed in our conversation.
I secretly arranged this get together after hearing that both of these great men in my life had not seen each other for years. They used messenger pigeons, flying back and forth, to keep each other informed. How happy I was at that time to be a mere messenger pigeon.
Father Tom told many stories about his friend John Howard Griffin that night. We were fascinated to learn about his friendship with mystic Thomas Merton and French philosopher Jacques Maritain. We heard stories about the ignorant dark forces sending prostitutes to his hotel room, in an attempt to dishonour and discredit him.
What I remember most vividly however, is his story about the cabdriver in New York City.
As a young man John Howard Griffin spent time in France, studding musicology, and particularly the meditative power of the Gregorian chants. After the breakout of the Second World War he joined the French resistance and helped many Jewish people escape to England. He left France in 1941, having narrowly escaped capture by the Nazi occupiers. He joined the US army when he returned home and continued the fight. As a radio operator he kept information flowing in all directions but in 1945, during an air raid, he was hurt by shrapnel and lost his sight.
Blindness changed him.
It's ironic isn't it? Blindness made him see things so clearly that sight kept away for so long.
Life went on with struggle for a young John Howard Griffin. He married and became the father of four children. He earned his living by writing about his war experiences, and lecturing on the Gregorian chants.
He would visit New York City often and became friends with one of the cities beloved cab drivers. They shared stories about their lives. They enjoyed each others company, and both looked forward to the next lecture that would once again reunite them in New York.
John Howard Griffin called the same company every time he was in town and he always requested the same driver. That driver was dependable, loving, optimistic, and anticipated things he needed before he did.
On one of the trips, the cab company informed John Howard that the taxi driver was let go and no longer worked for the company. He was shocked. How could this be? This sweet, compassionate man had so few flaws. What happened? There had to be a mistake.
The cab company explained that their former employee treated everyone with disdain. He had a bad temper, terrible manners, and a cancerous outlook on life. Enough was enough. There were only so many complaints that a company could handle before they to let him go. They put up with his dark spirit for too long.
Puzzled and confused John Howard Griffin pressed the issue but without answer.
Months later he learned in passing that his beloved former cabdriver had a horribly disfigured face. I don't remember if it was burned or scarred, but he lived like that his entire life. Childhood must not have been so blissful.
At that moment John Howard Griffin realized the contradiction.
We cannot see disfigurement or ugliness if when we cannot see at all. This cab driver led a life of great torment, except for the few moments he spent with a blind man. In those moments he could be who he was, he could be who he was meant to be.
I have never forgotten that story and often wonder how many things I miss and how little I truly know.
We are the walking blind. Living a blind existence in open sight. We shake hands and ask people how they are, without waiting or expecting an genuine answer. When we are asked in return, we lie and head merrily on our way. We are quick to judge, and slow to understand. Slow to give, and quick to receive. We are far too silent, too passive, too ignorant, and too spoiled.
We need a blind man to help us see. We need a poet to make us understand. We need each other to live.