In an attempt to understand a non-white life in America, John Griffin dyed his skin "black" and set off to the South. His experience, recounted in Black Like Me was, as you might expect, painful.
In November 1959, John Griffin set out on one of the most challenging experiences of his life.
Previously, the 39-year-old had served in the U.S. military, where shrapnel caused him to go temporarily blind. But this year, Griffin would do something even more trying: He would live for six weeks as a black man in the American South.
It was blindness that inspired John Howard Griffin, a white author and journalist from Dallas, Texas, to write about color in the United States. In 1956, Griffin, blind at the time, sat in on a panel discussion in Mansfield, Texas about desegregation. Unable to tell the speakers’ races from their voices, Griffin began to see color anew.
“The blind,” Griffin would go on to write, “can only see the heart and intelligence of a man, and nothing in these things indicates in the slightest whether a man is white or black.”
And thus an idea was born. In order for the United States to open its eyes to the deterministic weight of color, Griffin decided to “become” a black man and write about it. In order to do so, Griffin did something unprecedented: he altered his pigment.
Under the supervision of a New Orleans-based dermatologist, Griffin would spend a week under a sun lamp, up to 15 hours a day, soaking up UV rays. He would also take Oxsoralen, a prescription drug meant to treat vitiligo, which would aid in expediting the darkening of his skin.
With darker skin, and a shaved head and arms, Griffin set out to the American South — starting in New Orleans and ending in Atlanta. Griffin had a few rules for this journey: Namely, that he would stay at black-only hotels, eat at cafes run by African-Americans, and travel with African-Americans. If anyone asked him what he was doing, he would be honest.
Just as his skin color changed, so too did the treatment he received from others. Describing what he called a “hate stare” he received in a bus station lobby, Griffin wrote:
I walked up to the ticket counter. When the lady ticket-seller saw me, her otherwise attractive face turned sour, violently so. This look was so unexpected and so unprovoked I was taken aback.
‘What do you want?’ she snapped.
Taking care to pitch my voice to politeness, I asked about the next bus to Hattiesburg.
She answered rudely and glared at me with such loathing I knew I was receiving what the Negroes call ‘the hate stare’. It was my first experience with it. It is far more than the look of disapproval one occasionally gets. This was so exaggeratedly hateful I would have been amused if I had not been so surprised.
Griffin added that when he finally got a ticket, he experienced the “hate stare” once more, this time from a “middle-aged, heavy-set, well-dressed white man.” Of this experience, Griffin wrote:
“Nothing can describe the withering horror of this. You feel lost, sick at heart before such unmasked hatred, not so much because it threatens you as because it shows humans in such an inhuman light. You see a kind of insanity, something so obscene the very obscenity of it (rather than its threat) terrifies you.”
Upon his return, John Howard Griffin soon became something of a celebrity, being interviewed by Mike Wallace and profiled by Time magazine — but that national notoriety also spelled danger for Griffin and his family.
In Mansfield, where Griffin lived, he and his family received death threats; at one point he was even hung in effigy. That overt hostility eventually forced Griffin and his family to move to Mexico, where he compiled his findings into a book.
That book was called Black Like Me. Published in 1961 and since translated into 14 languages and a film, the harrowing stories within its pages, coupled with Griffin’s own transformation, generated strong (if not polarizing) public responses.
Some critics thought John Griffin’s “revelations” were nothing new, and that his trip was little more than a masquerade. Others, such as The New York Times‘ Dan Wakefield wrote that in order to understand the headline-making “outbreaks of racial conflict,” people needed to first “be aware of the routine torments of discrimination as they plague they everyday life of particular individuals,” which is what Wakefield believed Griffin’s book did.
Griffin would spend the remainder of his life traveling and speaking about his sojourn — and the negative responses were always with him.
One day in 1964, John Howard Griffin was traveling in Mississippi when he got a flat tire. He stood by the side of the road waiting for help, when “a group dragged him away and beat him with chains,” Griffin’s biographer and friend Robert Bonazzi told the Houston Chronicle, leaving him for dead.
Griffin faced plenty more adversity before dying 16 years later of a heart attack at the age of 60.
Decades later, the book and its author have fallen under inevitable scrutiny. What was once regarded as groundbreaking and sympathetic can just as easily be described as patronizing minstrelsy today.
As Sarfaz Manzoor of The Guardian writes:
“Today the idea of a white man darkening his skin to speak on behalf of black people might appear patronizing, offensive and even a little comical.
Griffin felt that by blacking up he had ‘tampered with the mystery of existence’, which sounded profound when I read it at 16, but now seems typical of Griffin’s rather portentous prose, which occasionally makes one doubt the credibility of what he is describing.”
Still, as Manzoor writes, we live in a world where “routine torments of discrimination” continue to occur. For that reason and in spite of its flaws, Black Like Me will remain a vital text for the foreseeable future.