Griffin, born in 1920 in Dallas, Texas, became famous as a novelist, journalist, humanitarian, and social critic, but he started out as a medical student and musicologist. While studying abroad in France during the months leading up to the German invasion in 1940, Griffin worked for the French underground and helped a number of Jews to escape. Discovered by the Gestapo, he returned to Texas, but soon enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps and was posted to the South Seas as an intelligence officer. After being caught in two separate explosions, he began to lose his sight. After the war, he continued his musical studies in France under Nadia Boulanger and Robert Casadesus and took up photography. When his sight failed completely, he returned to Texas to teach music and raise livestock. He began writing professionally in the 1950s, publishing his first novel, The Devil Rides Outside, in 1952. The book contained sexually charged material and became the subject of a landmark U.S. Supreme Court obscenity ruling in 1957. In that same year, Griffin regained his sight.
Griffin’s most famous book, Black Like Me (1961), came out of a series of articles he wrote for Sepia magazine and was later turned into a movie. Triggered by his despair over the high rate of suicide among African American males, Griffin—a white man—journeyed through the Deep South with darkened skin and reported on the racial bigotry he experienced as a “black” man. His actions enraged some readers, but propelled others into activism in the cause of racial justice.
Griffin’s diary, kept from 1950 until his death in 1980, records his conversion to Catholicism, his years as a teacher, his blindness, the beginning of his family life, the discovery of his vocation as a writer, the publication of his novels, his work as a major portrait photographer, and his work for social justice. A close friend of the philosopher Jacques Maritain and the religious writer Thomas Merton, Griffin was appointed official biographer of Thomas Merton, a task he was unable to finish due to failing health.
The Intrinsic Other: The Life of John Howard Griffin is open to the public and, runs through July 2, 2004. Highlights of the exhibition include Griffin’s manuscripts of Black Like Me, The Church and the Black Man, The Devil Rides Outside, Land of the High Sky, Nuni, Passacaglia, Scattered Shadows, and Street of the Seven Angels; as well as letters to Griffin from Eldridge Cleaver, Dick Gregory, Grace Halsell, Jacques Maritain, Thomas Merton, and Francis Poulenc; and some of his photographs.
A series of public programs connected to the exhibition is planned for April and early May. These are: Marcellus Blount, Associate Professor of English and Comparative Literature, Columbia, "The Legacy of Black Like Me, a Discussion," Monday, April 19, 6:00 P.M., Butler Library, Room 203; Patrick Lawlor, Exhibition Curator, Gallery Tour, Monday, April 26, 6:00 P.M., Kempner Gallery, RBML, Butler Library, 6th Floor, East; Patricia O'Toole and Binnie Kirshenbaum, Writing Program, School of the Arts, Columbia, "John Howard Griffin and Journal Keeping," Monday, May 3, 6:00 P.M., Butler Library, Room 203. The exhibition will be open for viewing until 8:00 P.M. following each Monday evening program. Please call 212-854-5153 for more information.
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