Over fifty-five years ago a white journalist left the security of his life to travel through the South as a black man. The book, Black Like Me, chronicled this journey. Though many may have read his story in high school or college, I encourage you to revisit this landmark work to remember the time period of Silent Ties.
Through the words of John Howard Griffin we gain a better understanding of why we have a limited view of Addie’s life, her feelings, and her opinions. On day one, October 28, 1959, he writes, “Though we lived side by side throughout the South, communication between the two races had simply ceased to exist. Neither really knew what went on with those of the other race. The Southern Negro will not tell the white man the truth. He long ago learned that if he speaks a truth unpleasing to the white, the white will make life miserable for him” (p. 7). Diary entry on November 29 reiterates, “They did not know that the Negro long ago learned he must tell them what they want to hear, not what is” (p. 123).
Griffin highlights the fear that was present for everyone in the Jim Crow South. It controlled all behavior, including that of the white people. It was a culture driven by the desire to save oneself regardless of race. In his epilogue he explains, “Any white man who advocated justice in those days could be ruined by his white neighbors … Certainly, many who had a sense of justice did not dare show it for fear of reprisals. So no one was free…Heaped on top of the economic reprisals and the dangers of physical reprisal were perhaps the most damaging reprisal of all – the deliberate character assassination” (p. 164).
Missy and Addie reflect this reality in their relationship. Through Missy, we see how she hides the truth on two fronts: her friendship with the colored girl next door from white society; and her privileges and opportunities from Addie. At the same time, we are denied access to Addie’s life. She has been conditioned by society to smile, nod, and say yes while hiding the reality of her world. Their friendship is controlled by the cultural parameters of the segregated South. Even a friendship that Missy describes as special and close was limited to the roles determined by the color of their skin.
Through John Howard Griffin’s words, we gain a better understanding of the issues affecting Addie, her family, and as a result, her friendship with Missy. When fear overwhelmed him, he could remove the pigment that endangered his life and retreat into the safety of being white, but that was not possible for Ada, James, Miss Emily, or their children. Black Like Me shined a spotlight on many issues facing Black Americans in 1959. It provides insight into the challenges Missy and Addie experienced throughout their childhood: maintaining their friendship into adolescence, and why it could not exist beyond the confines of those two houses and the field in between. I invite you to read, discuss, and reflect on the reality of Addie’s life through the stories in this ground-breaking work, Black Like Me.
“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Santayana