“Black Like Me remains important for several reasons,” says Robert Bonazzi, author of Man in the Mirror: John Howard Griffin and the Story of Black Like Me. “It’s a useful historical document about the segregated era, which is still shocking to younger readers. It’s also a truthful journal in which Griffin admits to his own racism, with which white readers can identify and perhaps begin to face their own denial of prejudice. Finally, it’s a well-written literary text that predates the ‘nonfiction novel’ of Mailer, Capote, Tom Wolfe and others.”
Griffin, however, has become the stuff of urban legend, rumored to have died of skin cancer caused by the treatments he used to darken his skin temporarily. Nearly forgotten is the remarkable man who crossed cultures, tested his faith and triumphed over physical setbacks that included blindness and paralysis. “Griffin was one of the most remarkable people I have ever encountered,” the writer Studs Terkel once said. “He was just one of those guys that comes along once or twice in a century and lifts the hearts of the rest of us.”
Born in Dallas in 1920, Griffin was raised in nearby Fort Worth. “We were given the destructive illusion that Negroes were somehow different,” he said. Yet his middle-class Christian parents taught him to treat the family’s black servants with paternalistic kindness. He would always recall the day his grandfather slapped him for using a common racial epithet of the era. “They’re people,” the old man told the boy. “Don’t you ever let me hear you call them [that] again.”
Griffin was gifted with perfect pitch and a photographic memory, but his most vital gift was curiosity. At 15, he earned entrance to a boarding school in France, where he was “delighted” to find black students in class but appalled to see them dining with white people in cafés. “I had simply accepted the ‘customs’ of my region, which said that black people could not eat in the same room with us,” Griffin later wrote. “It had never occurred to me to question it.”
Griffin was studying psychiatry in France when Hitler’s troops invaded Poland in 1939. Finding himself “in the presence of a terrible human tragedy,” he joined the French Resistance and helped smuggle Jewish children to England. When he told an informer of a plan to help a family escape, his name turned up on a Nazi death list. Fleeing just ahead of the Gestapo, Griffin returned to Texas in 1941 and enlisted in the Army Air Corps shortly after Pearl Harbor.
While working as a radio operator in the Pacific, he was sent on his own to the Solomon Islands to ensure natives’ loyalty to the American war effort. For a full year, Griffin studied tribal languages and adaptation to the jungle, but still assumed that “mine was a ‘superior’ culture.”
After getting blasted with shrapnel in an enemy air raid a few months before the end of the war, Griffin awoke in a hospital, seeing only shadows; eventually, he saw nothing. The experience was revealing. The blind, he wrote, “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.” Blindness also forced Griffin to find new strengths and talents. Over the next decade, he converted to Catholicism, began giving lectures on Gregorian chants and music history, married and had the first of four children. He also published two novels based on his wartime experience. Then in 1955, spinal malaria paralyzed his legs.
Blind and paraplegic, Griffin had reason to be bitter, yet his deepening faith, based on his study of Thomas Aquinas and other theologians, focused on the sufferings of the downtrodden. After recovering from malaria, he was walking in his yard one afternoon when he saw a swirling redness. Within months, for reasons that were never explained, his sight was fully restored.
Across the South in the summer of 1959, drinking fountains, restaurants and lunch counters still carried signs reading, “Whites Only.” Most Americans saw civil rights as a “Southern problem,” but Griffin’s theological studies had convinced him that racism was a human problem. “If a white man became a Negro in the Deep South,” he wrote on the first page of Black Like Me, “what adjustments would he have to make?” Haunted by the idea, Griffin decided to cross the divide. “The only way I could see to bridge the gap between us,” he would write, “was to become a Negro.”
An acquaintance told Griffin the idea was crazy. (“You’ll get yourself killed fooling around down there.”) But his wife, Elizabeth, backed his plan. Soon Griffin was consulting a dermatologist, spending hours under sunlamps and taking a drug that was used to treat vitiligo, a disease that whitened patches of skin. As he grew darker day by day, Griffin used a stain to cover telltale spots, then shaved his head. Finally, his dermatologist shook his hand and said, “Now you go into oblivion.”