What Will It Take?

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It’s been said that better questions lead us naturally to better answers and that it’s in not knowing that we open the doorway to knowing. I’m Scott Lennox, and you’re listening to The Beautiful Question, a consideration of things that truly matter in a complex world.

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Right now, as protests and calls for racial equality once again sweep across America, I think of a man who played a pivotal role in shaping not only my thinking, but the thinking and awareness of countless others.

Join me as I share some of my conversations with the late John Howard Griffin, and some of the questions that arose as a result of our time together. Stay with me.


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One of my early mentors was the late John Howard Griffin, a man who lived out his passion for racial equality. Best known for the altogether remarkable way he went about shining an unflinching light on the soul-crushing brutality of racism in this country, he wanted his to be a voice for positive change.

I first met him in 1974 while I was a seminary student at Texas Christian University. One of the women I worked with at the TCU library often made remarks about her brother, referring to him as “my crazy brother, John Howard.” When I asked if she was talking about John Howard Griffin, she answered, “Yes, would you like his phone number? I’m sure he’d be happy to talk with you.”


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When I called him early the following Saturday morning and told him that I had just seen his photography and was deeply moved by it, his response startled me. Rather than discussing with me it on the phone, he invited me to come to his Fort Worth home to talk about our shared interest. Excited at several levels, I headed straight over.

It was nearly ten when I left his house that evening, but not without several pages of handwritten notes of his formulas for making my own film developer, an armload of darkroom equipment, and a loaf of his French bread. He even loaned me one of his enlargers which I used to make photographic prints. Naturally enough, the first of them were images I had taken of him as we sat talking and while he was in the kitchen baking and preparing a savory pâté. As the day went on, the house filled with conversation and aromas I’ll never forget.

Our every encounter was marked by the same graciousness and generosity. In subsequent conversations, I told him about my time in combat and my unshakable belief in the value of all people. After listening intently to me and asking insightful questions, and though I hadn’t broached the subject, he opened up about how and why he wrote Black Like Me, the book that came to define him.


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In the late fifties, Griffin audaciously transformed himself from white to black as a living experiment through which he hoped to gain first-hand understanding of racism and what it was like to be black in America. Familiar with the Langston Hughes poem, “Dream Variations,” he found himself haunted by the last line. The poem reads:

To fling my arms wide
In some place of the sun,
To whirl and to dance
Till the white day is done.
Then rest at cool evening
Beneath a tall tree,
Dark like me-
That is my dream!

To fling my arms wide
In the face of the sun,
Dance! Whirl! Whirl!
Till the quick day is done.
Rest at pale evening…
A tall, slim tree…
Night coming tenderly
Black like me.


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Griffin told me that while talking with a black Southern minister, he said that he wanted to be directly involved with civil rights, as he was when he worked with the French resistance in helping to smuggle Jewish children to England at the beginning of World War Two. The minister responded by saying, “But you can never fully understand this, John Howard. You’re not black like me.” Hearing the phrase with new ears, Griffin said that he asked himself a pivotal question. These are his own words, not mine.

“If a white man became a Negro in the Deep South, what adjustments would he have to make? What is it like to experience discrimination based on skin color, something over which no one has control?”

With the personal and financial and editorial support of the publisher of Sepia magazine, who also lived in Fort Worth, Griffin undertook the landmark journey that would awaken many people to the reality of racism. When Black Like Me was first published in 1961, he and his family faced threats from the Ku Klux Klan as well as others. The Klan burned his effigy in public.

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As our conversations continued, Griffin told me how he went about changing the color of his skin so that he could travel through the South as a black man. He sought out a dermatologist in New Orleans who was hesitant, but prescribed Griffin pills that were used at the time to treat vitiligo. Vitiligo is a condition that causes the pigment producing cells in the body to die or stop working. Taking the pills, and then spending hours under a sun lamp while staying at the home of a friend in New Orleans, he turned many shades darker.

He told me that once he shaved his head, his transition was complete. He looked at himself in the mirror and realized there was no going back. His only option was to carry through with his plan to travel through the South as a black man, taking careful notes about what he experienced so that he could write about it with accuracy.

Just as Griffin had foreseen, you can probably predict some of what happened. He could no longer stay in certain hotels. Could no longer causally walk into a café or restaurant and sit down. Could no longer ride in cabs or sit anywhere but the back of a bus. Couldn’t be on certain street corners after dark. Couldn’t speak to a white woman. Couldn’t be recognized for who and what he was as a human being. Couldn’t move about as freely as he had as a white man. Couldn’t go anywhere in the South without a growing fear of violence or danger.

The list went on and on. And all of that because of nothing more than the color of his skin. Nothing else about him had changed.


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By the time I met him a decade and a half later, his body was failing and he spent much of his time on crutches or in a wheelchair. His jaw had been rebuilt, and he had developed osteomyelitis, a painful bone condition that would later require the amputation of both feet. He insisted to me that he would do it all again if it would help awaken America to the imperative of honoring all human beings equally.


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In my last conversation with him, Griffin was typically impassioned. He said that anger and violence can never bring about the changes that are unquestionably needed. “More riots,” he said, “more hatred, more deaths, and the burning of more cities, will only fuel and perpetuate the problem,” he said.

“So, what will it take?” I asked him.

I’ll never forget the look in his eyes as he took off his glasses, leaned forward with his elbows on his knees as he wiped them clean, and looked at me in a silence that seemed to stretch out into eternity.

“That is a question your generation must ask and answer,” he said. “If you don’t, we’ll stay right where we are. More people will suffer and die. Racism and hatred and division will continue. And things will only get worse. Much worse, I’m afraid.”


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In this time of great challenge and even greater opportunity, I ask each of us—including myself—this week’s Beautiful Questions. I’m more than aware that there are no simple answers. I innately know that the questions are ponderously deep and that the inquiry and subsequent answers must be even deeper. And yet, I know with everything in me that answers are available when we’re no longer willing to live without them.

And so, among endless others, here are six Beautiful Questions.

Question One: What will it take to bring about such necessary change in ourselves and in America that we honor all human life, not favoring one group over another, but all life?

Two: What will it take for us to recognize that we’re not enemies but equally valuable members of the sacred human family?

Question Three: What will it take for us to behave in ways that are free of violence and separation and ideologies that push us farther apart?

Question Four: What will it take to end years of generational thinking and behavior so that we individually and collectively free ourselves to create something vital—something that serves each of us as human beings and also serves all of us as a culture?

Five: What will it take for us to show true compassion to ourselves and then to one another?

And finally, Question Number Six: What will it take for us to really become One Nation?


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As always, I look forward to hearing from you and to the answers (and further questions) that arise in your own hearts and minds. I trust our collaborative abilities to end this seeming impasse and build something healthy and generative and enduring. I trust our shared humanity.


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Before I go, a couple of brief footnotes:

At a certain point, Griffin stopped speaking publicly about his experience. He came to believe that a white person’s voice could not speak as authoritatively about the black experience as one who is genetically black. Nonetheless, his experience continues to inspire people, and Black Like Me is still in print.

Though questions remain about the effects on him by the medication that changed the color of his skin, John Howard Griffin, a diabetic, died of heart failure in Fort Worth at the age of sixty.

And finally, it will never be my intention to sew seeds of discord or anger. My goal, here and wherever I am and by whatever means, is to promote greater understanding, strengthen the practice of rational compassion, and find ever-greater balance.

I thank you for being part of that with me through these Beautiful Question podcasts.


As I say each week,
and now, more than ever,
My Light with Your Light

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