Midway through John Howard Griffin’s Black Like Me, the author finds himself in a rundown boarding room in the black quarter of Hattiesburg, Mississippi.
It’s 1959. Griffin has used drugs and dye to darken his white skin in order to experience firsthand life as a black man in the south. After a week in cosmopolitan New Orleans, enduring segregation, discrimination, and the “hate stares” of random whites, Griffin deems himself ready to explore the racist heartland of Mississippi.
Hattiesburg is tense. Not long before, a white mob lynched a black prisoner in neighbouring Poplarville. The grand jury refused to return indictments against the mob. Within minutes of Griffin’s arrival, some white punks in a passing car throw a tangerine at him. When another car roars down the road, he notices that everyone retreats indoors. He learns that in the last few days several blacks have been beaten by hooligans or framed by police.
Safe in his room, Griffin looks into the mirror and sees “tears slick on his cheeks in the yellow light.” He attempts to write a letter to his wife, but he’s brought up short by the incongruity of a black man writing a tender letter to a white woman. He goes outside and buys a barbecued meat sandwich. As he is handed his food, he imagines he can read the thoughts of the black woman at the barbecue stand: “Her eyes said with unmistakable clarity, ‘God…isn’t it awful?’”
Griffin sits down on the steps of his building to eat. “I felt disaster,” he writes. “Somewhere in the night’s future the tensions would explode into violence.”
Finally, for the first time in his adventure, he gives in. He calls some white friends in Hattiesburg and asks to be rescued. “I’m scared to death,” he says into the phone. The friends pick him up and take him to a comfortable house in the white section of town.
Griffin’s outrage and frustration are understandable, and yet he seems carried away by his imagination. Why not just hide out in his room? Why not strike up a conversation with the woman at the barbecue stand, or one of the several friendly blacks he’s talked to since arriving in Hattiesburg?
I think I know why Griffin really broke down. It was the music.
“Canned jazz blar[ing] through the street with a monstrous high-strutting rhythm that pulled at the viscera,” audible through the walls of his room.
“Music from the jukebox, a grinding rhythm,” which he transcribes as, “Harangity hangity hangity hangity oomp oomp oomp.”
“The music consumed in its blatant rhythm all other rhythms, even that of the heartbeat,” he writes. Hearing the “hoots and shouts” from the taverns of the black quarter, he speculates:
I wondered how all of this would look to the casual observer, or the whites in their homes. “The Niggers are whooping it up over on Mobile Street tonight,” they might say. “They’re happy.” Or, as one scholar put it, “Despite their lowly status, they are capable of living jubilantly.” Would they see the immense melancholy that hung over the quarter, so oppressive that men had to dull their sensibilities in noise or wine or sex or gluttony in order to escape it? The laughter had to be gross or it would turn to sobs, and to sob would be to realize, and to realize would be to despair. So the noise poured out like a jazzed-up fugue, louder and louder to cover the whisper in every man’s soul. “You are black. You are condemned.” This is what the white man mistook for “jubilant living” and called “whooping it up.” This is how the white man can say, “They live like dogs,” never realizing why they must, to save themselves, shout, get drunk, shake the hip, pour pleasures into bellies deprived of happiness. Otherwise, the sounds from the quarter would lose order and rhythm and become wails.
This is condescension – not the condescension of a white man to blacks, but of a quiet man to the loud. As Griffin sees it, when blacks listen to music that irritates him, it can only be to cover the whispers in their soul. If their conditions were a little better, their souls wouldn’t have to whisper so loudly, and they’d listen to something less irritating – a little Beethoven, maybe.
That’s not how it turned out. Fifty years later, if they’re to be judged by the music they listen to, black people’s souls are whispering more loudly than ever. How would Griffin react to the news that the first black president has Jay-Z on his iPod?
I know how antagonizing other people’s music can be. I remember living in a bachelor apartment in Vancouver, depressed and unemployed, moaning in anguish whenever the upstairs neighbour turned on her stereo. I would put in earplugs, and put headphones over the earplugs, and watch inane sitcoms that I had no interest in watching, just to escape the music. I would put off eating because in order to make food I would have to remove the headphones and hear the music.
As I worked on this blog post, a white kid pulled his car into the parking lot beneath my window and sat there for five minutes pumping hip hop, which I felt as a steady pulsing in my sternum. I typed out Griffin’s sentence, The music consumed in its blatant rhythm all other rhythms, even the heartbeat. I sat here grinding my teeth, wishing death on the young, until the car pulled away.
That’s how it goes nowadays. In place of music we have beats. And in place of jukeboxes we have kids with 5000-watt subwoofers in their cars.
But the kids don’t install those subwoofers because they’re consumed with melancholy. They do it because they have shitty taste in music. Their shitty music isn’t a reaction to racism or poverty or poor living conditions, and neither was the music that John Howard Griffin heard in the black quarter of Hattiesburg in 1959.
But it makes sense that this was the only night of his experiment where Griffin chickened out. He was suffering under a double dose of oppression – the oppression of racism amplified by the oppression of other people’s music.