Black Like Me, 50 Years Later

John Howard Griffin gave readers an unflinching view of the Jim Crow South. How has his book held up?

John Howard Griffin, left in New Orleans in 1959, asked what "adjustments" a white man would have to make if he were black. (Don Rutledge)
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Oblivion proved worse than Griffin had imagined. Alone in New Orleans, he turned to a mirror. “In the flood of light against white tile, the face and shoulders of a stranger—a fierce, bald, very dark Negro—glared at me from the glass,” he would write. “He in no way resembled me. The transformation was total and shocking....I felt the beginnings of a great loneliness.”

Stepping outside, Griffin began his “personal nightmare.” Whites avoided or scorned him. Applying for menial jobs, he met the ritual rudeness of Jim Crow. “We don’t want you people,” a foreman told him. “Don’t you understand that?” Threatened by strangers, followed by thugs, he heard again and again the racial slur for which he had been slapped as a boy. That word, he wrote, “leaps out with electric clarity. You always hear it, and always it stings.”

Carrying just $200 in traveler’s checks, Griffin took a bus to Hattiesburg, Mississippi, where a recent lynching had spread fear through the alleys and streets. Griffin holed up in a rented room and wrote of his overwhelming sense of alienation: “Hell could be no more lonely or hopeless.” He sought respite at a white friend’s home before resuming his experiment—“zigzagging,” he would call it, between two worlds. Sometimes passing whites offered him rides; he did not feel he could refuse. Astonished, he soon found many of them simply wanted to pepper him with questions about “Negro” sex life or make lurid boasts from “the swamps of their fantasy lives.” Griffin patiently disputed their stereotypes and noted their amazement that this Negro could “talk intelligently!” Yet nothing gnawed at Griffin so much as “the hate stare,” venomous glares that left him “sick at heart before such unmasked hatred.”

He roamed the South from Alabama to Atlanta, often staying with black families who took him in. He glimpsed black rage and self-loathing, as when a fellow bus passenger told him: “I hate us.” Whites repeatedly insisted blacks were “happy.” A few whites treated him with decency, including one who apologized for “the bad manners of my people.” After a month, Griffin could stand no more. “A little thing”—a near-fight when blacks refused to give up their seats to white women on a bus—sent Griffin scurrying into a “colored” restroom, where he scrubbed his fading skin until he could “pass” for white. He then took refuge in a monastery.

Before Griffin could publish reports on his experiment in Sepia magazine, which had helped bankroll his travels, word leaked out. In interviews with Time and CBS, he explained what he’d been up to without trying to insult Southern whites. He was subjected to what he called “a dirty bath” of hatred. Returning to his Texas hometown, he was hanged in effigy; his parents received threats on his life. Any day now, Griffin heard, a mob would come to castrate him. He sent his wife and children to Mexico, and his parents sold their property and went into exile too. Griffin remained behind to pack his studio, wondering, “Is tonight the night the shotgun blasts through the window?” He soon followed his family to Mexico, where he turned his Sepia articles into Black Like Me.

In October 1961, Black Like Me was published, to wide acclaim. The New York Times hailed it as an “essential document of contemporary American life.” Newsweek called it “piercing and memorable.” Its success—translated into 14 languages, made into a movie, included in high-school curriculums—turned Griffin into a white spokesman for black America, a role he found awkward.

“When Griffin was invited to troubled cities, he said exactly the same thing local black people had been saying,” notes Nell Irvin Painter, a black historian and the author of The History of White People. “But the powers that were could not hear the black people. Black speakers in America had little credibility until ‘yesterday.’ Some CNN correspondents who are black now get to comment on America, but that’s a very recent phenomenon.”

As the civil rights movement accelerated, Griffin gave more than a thousand lectures and befriended black spokesmen ranging from Dick Gregory to Martin Luther King Jr. Notorious throughout the South, he was trailed by cops and targeted by Ku Klux Klansmen, who brutally beat him one night on a dark road in 1964, leaving him for dead. By the late 1960s, however, the civil rights movement and rioting in Northern cities highlighted the national scale of racial injustice and overshadowed Griffin’s experiment in the South. Black Like Me, said activist Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Ture), “is an excellent book—for whites.” Griffin agreed; he eventually curtailed his lecturing on the book, finding it “absurd for a white man to presume to speak for black people when they have superlative voices of their own.”

Throughout the 1970s, Griffin struggled to move beyond Black Like Me. Having befriended Thomas Merton, he began a biography of the Trappist monk, even living in Merton’s cell after his death. Hatred could not penetrate his hermitage, but diabetes and heart trouble could. In 1972, osteomyelitis put him back in a wheelchair. He published a memoir urging racial harmony, but other works—about his blindness, about his hermitage days—would be published posthumously. He died in 1980, of heart failure. He was 60.

By then, the South was electing black mayors, congressmen and sheriffs. The gradual ascent of black political power has turned Black Like Me into an ugly snapshot of America’s past. Yet Gerald Early thinks the book might be even more relevant now than in the 1960s: “Because the book talks about events that took place some 50 years ago, it might get people to talk about the racial issues of today in a calmer way, with a richer meaning because of the historical perspective.”


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