Texas Town Becomes Literary Landmark

Robert Bonazzi addresses the audience in Mansfield (that's Laura Bush in the pistachio dress suit). Photo by Michael Swellander

Photo by Michael Swellander.

Mansfield became Texas' fifth National Literary Landmark Sunday, in recognition of its most worldly resident, writer and civil rights activist John Howard Griffin (1920-1980). The main room of the Mansfield Public Library was filled with locals in a ceremony that featured a former First Lady, SWAT team and lots of cake.

Griffin is best known for his book Black Like Me (1961), an account of the six weeks he spent disguised as a black man in the American south. For this project Griffin underwent intensive skin treatments, including prolonged exposure to ultraviolet light, which scorched and darkened his epidermis. In the book he details the alienation and hatred he felt coming from white people, reactions based entirely on the color of his skin.

Mrs. Laura Bush, who unveiled the plaque declaring Mansfield a literary landmark, called Griffin "one of the strongest white voices for civil rights" in her speech.

Black Like Me made Griffin a celebrity for a little while, partly because it offered white Americans an uncommonly sharp (albeit mediated) view into the experience of southern blacks, but also just for the sheer radicalness of Griffin's experiment. His methodology was so eccentric it threatened to steal attention from his results. Who was this crazy white boy?

His story only gets more head-spinning, for Griffin lived life enough for several people. As a teenager, he left home for a classical education at lycée in France, and while in Europe he studied medicine, composition and Gregorian chant. Then he joined the Air Force and studied the languages and cultures of the Solomon Islands. Then he became a civil rights activist. Then he became a master photographer. Oh, and as a young soldier he went blind as a result of a bomb blast, only to have his sight return, miraculously, ten years later.

Morgan Atkinson's documentary, Uncommon Vision: The Life and Times of John Howard Griffin, gives coherence to these diverse episodes. Atkinson, who also produced a documentary about the life of Griffin's friend and spiritual colleague, Thomas Merton, said he wanted to give attention to the multifaceted life that contextualizes Black Like Me.

"Before Uncommon Vision, I already knew about Black Like Me," explained Atkinson at a screening before the ceremony, "but once I started learning more about Griffin I wanted to tell this story that is not as well known."

One of his sources was Robert Bonazzi, Griffin's official biographer, who was also at Sunday's ceremony. In a short lecture, Bonazzi explained how Griffin's work in civil rights might have been prefigured in his name, which he shares with the mythical animal that is half lion and half eagle.

"The lion," said Bonazzi, "has ethical courage, and the eagle has keen inner vision and speed of flight." Griffin showed all of these characteristics in his work, argues Bonazzi. The "speed of flight" appeared at times when Griffin had to flee from societies that wanted him dead for his commitment to unpopular political views (this happened several times).

Thanks to Griffin's ethical courage, however, Mansfield now joins sites like the O. Henry House and Museum in Austin and the Menger Hotel in San Antonio, which the American Library Association has also recognized as Literary Landmarks. The town that once hanged and burned Griffin's likeness in rage over Black Like Me now officially embraces its most eccentric son.

San Antonio's own Wings Press will reissue Black Like Me September 2011 in a 50th anniversary edition. The press has also reissued all of Griffin's other works as ebooks.

No comments: