In 1947 a Norwegian became curious if it was possible for the natives of South America to have drifted on a raft 4,300 miles across the Pacific ocean to populate the islands of Polynesia.
The question of who populated Polynesia wasn’t really important to anyone but Thor Heyerdahl.
He opened his bestselling book in 1950 with these words,
“Once in a while you find yourself in an odd situation. You get into it by degrees and in the most natural way but, when you are right in the midst of it, you are suddenly astonished and ask yourself how in the world it all came about. If, for example, you put to sea on a wooden raft with a parrot and five companions, it is inevitable that sooner or later you will wake up one morning out at sea, perhaps a little better rested than ordinarily, and begin to think about it. On one such morning I sat writing in a dew-drenched logbook…”
DNA evidence later proved Heyerdahl’s theory to be incorrect. Today we know for certain that Polynesia was not populated by South Americans, but by Asians.
But I still like Thor Heyerdahl. He wanted to know if South Americans could have made that journey, so he built a raft using only the tools and materials available in prehistoric times, pushed away from the soft safety of the shore, and had himself a wonderful adventure.
We don’t do that sort of thing anymore, but I wish we did.
We no longer set out to experience – with an open mind – the lives of persons who are different than us. We are no longer willing “to walk a mile in their shoes” so that we might better understand them. What we do instead is look for evidence that our own perspective is correct and that all the others are wrong. We are assisted in this unholy endeavor by algorithms on the internet and one-sided news organizations that tell us exactly what we want to hear.
I like Thor Heyerdahl and I like John Howard Griffin.
Like me, John Howard Griffin was born in Dallas, Texas, but he got there 38 years before I arrived.
Two years before America entered World War II, 19-year-old John Howard Griffin joined the French Resistance as a medic and helped smuggle Austrian Jews to safety and freedom in England. When America officially entered that war, Griffin served the United States Army in the South Pacific where he was decorated for bravery.
Keep that characteristic in mind: bravery.
While serving in the Solomon islands, Griffin contracted spinal malaria that left him temporarily paraplegic. And then the concussion of a Japanese bomb caused him to become blind. Eleven years later, in 1957, his eyesight inexplicably returned and that’s when the real adventure began.
America was now at war with itself. The battle over civil rights was a whistling teapot on a fiery stove, so John Howard Griffin shaved his head in order to hide his straight hair, took large doses of Oxsoralen in 1959 to darken his skin, then spent six weeks traveling as a black man in the Deep South. He started in new New Orleans, then visited Mississippi, South Carolina, and Georgia, getting around mainly by hitchhiking.
When I was young, I read John Howard Griffin’s book about his experiences as a black man, and it felt to me like an honest and straightforward diary. A lot of other people felt differently, of course, so the Ku Klux Klan beat him nearly to death in 1975.
And so it goes.*
Evidently, it is safer to drift 4,300 miles across the Pacific in a prehistoric raft than it is to talk about race in America.
Roy H. Williams
*I wrote those 4 words – Kurt Vonnegut’s signature line – because I heard him say it in my mind after I wrote the preceding sentence.
Clay Stafford produces an annual conference that brings together authors, agents, exhibitors, and fans of crime and thriller literature. And he’s been doing it for 17 years. To pull off a large meeting, workshop, or other live event in the post-COVID-19 era requires countless steps in planning for the next conference, beginning a year in advance. This week, Clay shares his event blueprints with roving reporter Rotbart, covering everything from the selection of a venue and keynote speakers to his formula for ensuring that attendees leave feeling their time and money were well invested. If you think you might ever need to plan an event, plan on listening to Rotbart’s talk with Stafford at MondayMorningRadio.com. Right now would be a good time, don’t you think?