For twenty-one days in 1959, John Howard Griffin, a white journalist and novelist from Texas, moved through the Deep South as black man.
Under a doctor’s care, he took drugs to darken his skin, he laid under a sun lamp and he used dye on the most visible parts of his body: his face, arms and legs.
From November 8 through November 28, he spent his days and nights as a black man in Louisiana (New Orleans), Mississippi (Hattiesburg and Biloxi), Alabama (Mobile and Montgomery) and Georgia (Atlanta).
Then, for 16 days, he moved back and forth between the black and white worlds, finding ways to tinker with his coloring so that he could pass for white or pass for black as he needed. On December 14, a little more than five weeks after he’d started, he resumed his white identity a final time.
I felt strangely sad to leave the world of the Negro after having shared it so long — almost as though I were fleeing my share of his pain and heartache.
Griffin started his experiment in New Orleans, and, initially, he thought that the city’s whites were nicer to blacks than he’d expected. That feeling, however, didn’t last long.
After a week of wearying rejection, the newness had worn off. My first, vague favorable impression that it was not as bad as I had thought it would be came from courtesies of the whites toward the Negro in New Orleans. But this was superficial. All the courtesies in the world do not cover up the one vital and massive discourtesy — that the Negro is treated not even as a second-class citizen, but as a tenth-class one.
His day-to-day living is a reminder of his inferior status. He does not become calloused to these things — the polite rebuffs when he seeks better employment; hearing himself referred to as a nigger, coon, jigaboo; having to bypass available rest-room facilities or eating facilities to find one specified for him. I do not speak here only from my personal reaction, but from seeing it happen in others, and from seeing their reactions.
At a bus station, Griffin went to the counter to buy a ticket to Hattiesburg, Mississippi. But, as he approached, the face of the lady behind the counter turned violently sour.
“What do you want?” she snapped. Information on the next bus to Hattiesburg, he said.
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.
Initially, the clerk refused to accept a $10 bill from Griffin, claiming she couldn’t make change. When she did finally give him a ticket, she threw his change back to him with such force that most of it fell to his feet.
Her performance was so venomous, I felt sorry for her. It must have shown in my expression, for her face congested to high pink. She undoubtedly considered it a supreme insolence for a Negro to dare to feel sorry for her.
“Shrivel men’s souls”
Nonetheless, New Orleans was easier for Griffin as a black man than Hattiesburg.
Immediately after arriving by bus, Griffin was the target of insults from a passing car of young white men and boys as he stood on a street in the black ghetto, and the experience shocked him to the core. In a room he was able to obtain, he looked at himself in the mirror and “I knew I was in hell.”
Tears slid down his cheeks.
Then the onrush of revulsion, the momentary flash of blind hatred against whites who were somehow responsible for all of this, the old bewilderment of wondering, “Why do they do it? Why do they keep us like this? What are they gaining? What evil has taken them?” (The Negroes say, “What sickness has taken them.”)
My revulsion turned to grief that my own people could give the hate stare, could shrivel men’s souls, could deprive humans of rights they unhesitatingly accord their livestock.
“Decent-looking white men and boys”
Despite such experiences, Griffin makes his way through other areas of the Deep South, mostly by hitch-hiking, often getting rides from white men.
From the distance of more than half a century, hitchhiking seems a particularly courageous and/or foolhardy risk to take for a white man masquerading as a black man. Even so, in late 1950s, hitching rides was still a common means of travel throughout the nation, so perhaps it wasn’t as dangerous as it seems in retrospect.
Almost always, Griffin writes, the white man’s talk got around to sex:
Some were shamelessly open, some shamelessly subtle. All showed morbid curiosity about the sexual life of the Negro as an inexhaustible sex-machine with oversized genitals and a vast store of experiences, immensely varied…
They carried the conversation to the depths of depravity. I note these things because it is harrowing to see decent-looking white men and boys assume that because a man is black they need show him none of the reticences they would, out of respect, show the most derelict white man.
Like hitchhiking itself, these conversations would seem to be particularly dangerous for any black man, but even more so for Griffin. Lustful black men — that’s the image that was long promulgated in the Deep South. The victims of the thousands of lynchings over a period of 100 years were almost always identified as lustful black men.
“Stern and heartless”
Griffin calls such conversations harrowing, but his entire time as a black man was, as he describes it, harrowing.
So harrowing, in fact, that, maybe half way through his time as a black man, Griffin began having the same nightmare from which he would awaken, screaming:
White men and women, their faces stern and heartless, closed in on me. The hate stare burned through me. I pressed back against a wall, I could expect no pity, no mercy. They approached slowly and I could not escape them.
Griffin, remember, was a white man. Yet, after less than a month with his skin darkened, he was having a recurring nightmare about a threatening mob of white men and women.
I am certain that African-Americans, then and now, would find many ways in which Black Like Me is lacking.
I am certain that it must have rankled African-Americans to have this account of a white man pretending to be black become a huge hit. It was a bestseller in 1961 when first published, and it still sells well today.
Why would whites need to hear from one of their own what it felt like to be black in America?
The answer to that question is racism.
Even among the more open-minded whites in the 1960s, the testimony of a white man would have carried more weight. An account by a black women or man would have been easy for many whites to dismiss as exaggerated or sensationalized.
What sort of Black Like Me might have been written if someone had conducted the same experiment in the North?
It would have been different, but how much? The North was racist in its own way in those years.
Indeed, I should make it clear that, from my own work researching and writing about race relations for the Chicago Tribune and other publications over a period of more than four decades, I know that racism remains strong in the South and in the North.
How does it compare with the racism of 1959?
Well, there are certainly enough black voices who are ready and willing to tell white America how racism today impacts their lives, limits their lives, stunts their lives.
Listening to them would be a good place to start.
Patrick T. Reardon