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7/31/97 Black editor told white writer: ‘walk in our shoes’ to understand

FORT WORTH, Texas (BP)–Already a twice-published novelist, John Howard Griffin began writing for magazines in the 1950s, including Sepia, which was geared to a black audience. One day, Griffin was talking to an editor at Sepia — a black woman — about regular news reports of college-educated black men committing suicide over their inability to find work.
As Griffin’s widow, Elizabeth Griffin-Bonazzi, recounts:
“He asked her, ‘What is going on here?’ She said, ‘John, I don’t suppose you will ever know until you walk in our shoes.'”
With his education, Griffin knew he could make it as a white man. But could he get a job as a black man? He decided to see.
Griffin-Bonazzi, of Fort Worth, Texas, said her late husband probably expected her to question his sanity when he shared what he wanted to do — travel the Deep South disguised as a black man. “And I don’t know why I didn’t, but I was kind of fascinated with the idea myself.”
She remembers the six-week separation while Griffin carried out the project as the hardest part. “He was pretty shattered when he came back.”
Then when the first article appeared in Sepia, Griffin began receiving death threats. He was hung in effigy. The family lived in Mexico for a while to escape the hostility.
Much of the two decades Griffin lived after the articles and book came out were spent working for improved relations between whites and blacks. Bonazzi said Griffin gave over 1,000 lectures in 13 years. Many times he was called into crisis situations in cities to communicate the black position on different issues to whites.
“He was a deeply spiritual man,” Griffin-Bonazzi said of her husband, a Catholic convert, “and everything he did he felt directed by God’s will. That’s really what drove him all his life.”
Robert Bonazzi, who married Elizabeth after Griffin’s death in 1980, is the author of a new book, “Man in the Mirror: John Howard Griffin and the Story of Black Like Me” (Orbis Books), due out in August.

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  • Tim Palmer