What Happened When A White Man “Became” Black In Mid-20th Century America

Published June 16, 2016
Updated February 10, 2017
Published June 16, 2016
Updated February 10, 2017

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.

John Griffin

YouTubeJohn Griffin as a “black” man.

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 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.

Black Like Me

YouTubeJohn Griffin, once again, as a “black” man.

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.”

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