2005- In a novel or play that you have studied, identify a character who outwardly conforms while questioning inwardly. Then write an essay in which you analyze how this tension between outward conformity and inward questioning contributes to the meaning of the work.
Noteworthy author and civil rights activist, John Howard Griffin, significantly altered the pigment of his skin in order to pose temporarily as a black man; however, Griffin failed to realize that through this temporary alteration of his outward appearance, that who he wass on the inside, or who he thought he was, would ultimately change forever, and cause him to question his inward being as compared to who he had conformed to be on the outside, in order to temporarily become an altered version of himself and successfully fulfill his experience upon this journey as the new, black, John Griffin.
In order to embark upon this journey, John Griffin felt that it was necessary to temporarily darken his skin so that he could physically look like a black man in order to experience racism first-hand. After completing the final procedure of the skin pigmentation process, Griffin’s initial reaction upon looking into the mirror for the first time was nothing less than total shock. Griffin exclaims that, “The transformation was total and shocking. I had expected to see myself disguised, but this was something else. I was imprisoned in the flesh of an utter stranger, an unsympathetic one with whom I felt no kinship. All the traces of the John Griffin I had been were wiped from existence. Even the senses underwent a change so profound if filled me with distress. I looked into the mirror and saw nothing of the white John Griffin’s past.” (p 16) Needless to say, Griffin felt as if who he was on the outside, and who he felt to be on the inside, were now completely separate from the “new”, black, John Griffin, and he significantly struggled to find a connection between the two throughout his journey, as well as the memory of this sort of double life of which he temporarily took on, for the rest of his life.
Along his journey, John attempted to learn how to talk and behave such as a Negro during this time period would have, and was able to come across as more believable to others through this portrayal of characteristics. Through this however, John felt that he was now facing issues in which he had not yet considered upon his transformation because as he went about this alternate life-style as a black man in the South, not only did John experience first-hand the cruelty and hatred in which Negroes faced during this time, but he also felt that he was losing the “white” John that he was originally, and was now beginning to turn into this role in which he played on the outside after being able to see and understand what it was like to be black during this time. Not only was John Griffin beginning to capture the true imagery of a black man through his outward appearance and behavior, but he now was also able to almost feel like one on the inside as he experienced the traumatic emotions and thoughts that would most likely run across a Negro’s mind upon being segregated and spit up by the rest of society during this grueling time.
Towards the end of his excursion across the South, Griffin writes that, “I felt strangely sad to leave the world of the Negro after having shared it so long–almost as though I were fleeing my share of his pain and heartache.” (p 143) This shows an idea of the struggle in which John Howard Griffin experienced upon trying to find a balance and connection between his two selves, the black and white John, and his thoughts behind why it was so difficult to leave one for the other because of the heartache and lament of which he felt upon having to trade one for the other. John Griffin’s alteration of his outward appearance not only fooled others into thinking that he was a black man, but in a way, it essentially fooled him into believing this as well. Even after the dark pigment of his skin began to fade and he began to return back to his normal life-style, Griffin could not help but feel that that as if there was still something left of the “black John” that he had once known so well and for so long. John Griffin was never able to truly connect who he felt that he was on the inside, whether it be the black or white version, to who he appeared to be on the outside, even after the fading of his skin pigmentation.
Through it all; the skin pigmentation, his journey across the South as a “black” man, and upon his return home to normalcy, John Howard Griffin seemed to constantly undergo some type of struggle to find the connection between this varying image of who he appeared to be on the inside, and what he felt was truly him on the inside as well. From “black John” to “white John”, John Griffin was never truly able to put the two together in a way in which he felt at ease with himself from the inside out, and serves as a primary example of how one’s appearance on the outside often off-stages who they may be, or have been at one time, on the inside as well, and poses for many struggles to come in order to find a balance within one self’s own being. But despite this confusion due to this temporary alteration of his outward appearance, John Howard Griffith discovered something that most people will never be able to understand, and that is to know first-hand what it is like to be someone else, a different race other than your own, and to feel what they feel, and understand their thoughts and emotions because you have been there with them, and have almost literally walked in their shoes. Yes, this discovery came with its consequences emotionally and psychologically as far as Griffin’s struggle for connection between his inward and outward appearances, but in the end, this journey proved to be worth the endeavors that he embarked upon through the findings in which John Howard Griffith discerned upon as a result of this journey.