Late in 1959, on a sidewalk in New Orleans, a shoe-shine man suffered a sense of déjà vu. He was certain he’d shined these shoes before, and for a man about as tall and broad-shouldered. But that man had been white. This man was brown-skinned. Rag in hand, the shoeshine man said nothing until the hulking man spoke.
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“Is there something familiar about these shoes?”
“Yeah, I been shining some for a white man—”
“A fellow named Griffin?”
“Yeah. Do you know him?”
“I am him.”
John Howard Griffin had embarked on a journey unlike any other. Many black authors had written about the hardship of living in the Jim Crow South. A few white writers had argued for integration. But Griffin, a novelist of extraordinary empathy rooted in his Catholic faith, had devised a daring experiment. To comprehend the lives of black people, he had darkened his skin to become black. As the civil rights movement tested various forms of civil disobedience, Griffin began a human odyssey through the South, from New Orleans to Atlanta.
Fifty years ago this month, Griffin published a slim volume about his travels as a “black man.” He expected it to be “an obscure work of interest primarily to sociologists,” but Black Like Me, which told white Americans what they had long refused to believe, sold ten million copies and became a modern classic.
“Black Like Me disabused the idea that minorities were acting out of paranoia,” says Gerald Early, a black scholar at Washington University and editor of Lure and Loathing: Essays on Race, Identity, and the Ambivalence of Assimilation. “There was this idea that black people said certain things about racism, and one rather expected them to say these things. Griffin revealed that what they were saying was true. It took someone from outside coming in to do that. And what he went through gave the book a remarkable sincerity.”
A half century after its publication, Black Like Me retains its raw power. Still assigned in many high schools, it is condensed in online outlines and video reviews on YouTube. But does the book mean the same in the age of Obama as it did in the age of Jim Crow?