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Red Like Him

Robert Griffin informs considerations of the Ward Churchill issues

This is Dark Cloud on Wednesday, April 27, 2005.

Texan John Howard Griffin tinted his skin and lived the life of a black man in the South for a month and a half. He discovered that being an American Black bit in mid 20th century.

Griffin was no superficial showboat, no liberal poseur. He had studied widely in literature, medicine, and music, writing on how music might help the criminally insane. After studying medieval music under the Benedictines, he considered the priesthood. This fell apart when WWII broke out, and Griffin worked as a medic with the French resistance, till he was able to serve with the US Army Air Corps in the South Pacific, where he received a head injury from an exploding shell and was decorated for bravery. His injury left him completely blind for about eleven years, during which he wrote five books. In terrible health his entire adult life, having diabetes, spinal malaria and a persistent bone infection - which left him paralyzed for a brief period - and after a series of heart attacks, Griffin died in 1980 at the age of sixty. No wimp, Mr. Griffin.

After his sight had returned, inexplicably in 1957, he tinted his skin and spent six weeks as an African American. The war hero could stand only six weeks of this, being denied rights and services and receiving all sorts of abuse, but he had enough to write Black Like Me, an important book widely read. We know this because the book was widely ridiculed, but on at least three generations’ mandated high school reading lists. A good writer, Griffin’s story is still in print, but when revealed, he was hung in effigy in his home town, and his family had to live in Mexico.

In the early 1970's, CU Professor and former Department Head Ward Churchill started pretending he was an Indian, claiming the necessary minimal percentage of blood needed. He dressed the part, he cashed in on it, and has played the role ever since, daring anyone to argue with him.  Being a large (6'7") fish in a very small political and academic pond with more than its share of questionable authorities, he has survived, like the coelacanth, with his 1970's jive and approved hairstyle, a creature from another time.

Supporters of Churchill held a rally at CU yesterday. I wasn’t there. Having heard that it was to be held, I could have written the speeches and the press coverage of it last Sunday, and so could anyone who has lived through enough of these, both in the years they actually mattered and this one, which did not.

Churchill had written rather foolish - but utterly predictable - Olde Left boilerplate and template about how America, and in particular the people in the World Trade Center, had brought their fate upon themselves. When he wrote it, he possibly assumed, as many on the Left assumed, that a humiliated America would be hard pressed to recover, a vision that vanished when the last dustpan at Ground Zero was emptied within nine months of the buildings’ collapse. Conservatives, always lusting for a Churchill to demonstrate the virtual treason of the mere liberals, over-reached and demanded his removal from state employment. A conflict in these terms excites both sides. Poseurs all, demonstrations and counter demonstrations appealing to the masses as more American than the other.

What happened, though, is we now agree that whatever else, Churchill had the right to say what he did. We cannot punish him for views held. What Churchill did not count on were revelations, including audio recordings, of himself trying to intimidate, evidence of plagiarism for profit, shaky academic work bolstered by numerous annotations that don’t say what Churchill needs them to say, and much dirty laundry from the dubious American Indian Movement, within whose ranks old tribal conflicts continue. Worse, old suspicions of Churchill’s percentage of Indian blood arose, and he will offer no proof. This is both important and messy, because he clearly received advanced employment because of his minority status, but this couldn’t be admitted then or now by those who oversaw his work, now revealed as highly dubious.

Churchill has provided false stories of additional crimes against the Indians, pandering to his small audience for current political reasons, knowing that mainstream media and scholarship didn’t read him, much less check his work. Confronted with these revelations, plus threats against both men and women, Churchill may well be fired as an unqualified fraud since his work now gets the scrutiny it has never deserved and might not survive.

He knows this, had tries to keep the attention of both media and supporters focused on the Freedom of Speech issue, which no longer applies. His enemy is no longer Governor Owens, but himself. Elevated by lazy elements at CU past and present as an example of ethnic diversity in the faculty, his battle cry was “Red Like Me and Put Upon.” That’s been removed as his sacred text and fall back position. Griffin posed to learn. Churchill posed to niche profit. He now has to stand alone as an academic, and he shucks and jives.

Even at 6’7” Churchill is only as tall as he stands, and alone without his ridiculous and short Russell Means gang, he dwindles from inflated panderer to nothing. Nothing at all.