Black Like Him | Lit Feature | Chicago Reader

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Black Like Him

Fifty years ago John Howard Griffin traveled the south disguised as an African-American man.


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Fifty years ago this spring, the white Texas writer John Howard Griffin became a national celebrity. Sepia, a prominent black magazine, published his "Journey Into Shame," a series of articles about his daring travels through the Deep South. At midnight on November 7, 1959, after using pills, a sunlamp, and dye to darken his skin, Griffin had stepped out into the streets of New Orleans as a Negro to see what he would see.

The response in Griffin's hometown, Mansfield, Texas, was that someone hanged him in effigy.

Just before beginning his adventure Griffin studied himself in the mirror and was overwhelmed. He felt exterminated. The person he'd been all his life was all but lost, no longer before him and scarcely within. "I was imprisoned in the flesh of an utter stranger, an unsympathetic one with whom I felt no kinship," he would write in Black Like Me, his best-selling 1961 book, which reworked the Sepia articles and described the reaction to them. "I had gone too far. I knew now that there is no such thing as a disguised white man, when the black won't rub off. . . . I was a newly created Negro who must go out that door and live in a world unfamiliar to me."

Griffin didn't change his physiognomy (though he cut off his lank hair because it had no curl). He didn't change his name or biography. He didn't affect an accent. When asked, he identified himself as a writer from the north studying "conditions," and all but the northern part was true. But his skin defined him—to the whites he met, to the blacks, and to himself. In Hattiesburg he began a letter home and couldn't get past "Darling." In Mississippi, no black man would dare address a white woman as "Darling," and Griffin couldn't either.

Griffin lived as a black man for about three weeks, once finding respite in the home of a white editor and another time in a monastery. For another couple of weeks, after learning better how to manipulate his skin color, he sampled southern cities as alternately a black man and a white one.

Rereading Black Like Me recently, I was surprised by how quick the trip was. Then again, when Christ died for our sins he was dead all of three days, and for 2,000 years that has been good enough for the Christian church. No one said Griffin's immersion was too short to matter, though some black reviewers had reservations. For instance, Louis Lomax praised Black Like Me in the Saturday Review but commented, "As a Negro I was somewhat amused as Griffin eased from the white world into the black and encountered hostilities that have been my daily bread since childhood." And the Negro Digest reviewer asserted that there was no way to "put a white man in a Negro's place, for deep down, the white man understands that he is free."

When Griffin looked himself in the mirror that first time, he felt anything but free. His revulsion told him, he'd later write, that "my own prejudices, at the emotional level, were hopelessly ingrained in me." And now that his skin was dark he was at the mercy of the south, a land where mercy to the Negro was in short supply. Jim Crow did not just suppress, it menaced and sometimes killed, almost always with impunity. No, Griffin would not internalize Jim Crow the way a Negro must, but he would get a healthy taste of it. Commanded off park benches, out of waiting rooms, down the road a piece to the colored toilet, and of course to the backs of buses, he learned about life when it's structured as an unending series of humiliations. Hitchhiking through Dixie at night, he discovered that white drivers didn't care what they said to him because he was no one who mattered, and so they revealed their superstitions about black virility and prodded him to admit he lusted after white women. Studying the desolate swamps outside his window, Griffin wondered whether it would be more dangerous to allow that he did or keep insisting he didn't.

Setting out, Griffin had told himself he was engaged in sociology. "The Southern Negro will not tell the white man the truth," Griffin would write in the opening paragraphs of Black Like Me. "How else except by becoming a Negro could a white man hope to learn the truth?" But as he wrote most of the sociology fell away, and what survived was a terse, bleak narrative. Black Like Me is weakest where traces of the sociological boilerplate remain; they seem to have originated somewhere other than his journey. For instance, he writes of the New Orleans ghetto, "Here sensuality was escape, proof of manhood for people who could prove it no other way." When he passed through this ghetto he'd been a black man about half a day.

Jim Crow was America's great acquiescence, the era that the Greatest Generation had to get well past before anyone could nominate them as such with a straight face. The north was nearly as implicated in it as the south. As Black Like Me was being published, the Saturday Review happened to carry a point/counterpoint by the Reverend William Sloane Coffin of Yale and the conservative writer William Buckley entitled "Desegregation: Will It Work?" Buckley wrote that it wouldn't. He argued that there is "no present solution" to the race problem in the south and that only damage would be done if Washington tried to impose one. "If it is doubtful what enduring benefits the Southern Negro would receive from the intervention of government on the scale needed to, say, integrate the schools in South Carolina," he wrote, seven years after Brown v. Board of Education, "it is less doubtful what the consequences would be to the ideal of local government and the sense of community, ideals which I am not ready to abandon, even to kill Jim Crow."

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