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John Howard Griffin Took Race All the Way to the Finish

By JONATHAN YARDLEY
Saturday, March 17, 2007

An occasional series in which The Post's book critic reconsiders notable and/or neglected books from the past.

In the fall of 1959 an obscure white journalist and novelist named John Howard Griffin, a native of Texas, went to a dermatologist in New Orleans with what can only be called an astonishing request: He wanted "to become a Negro." A man of conscience and religious conviction, he was deeply troubled by the racial situation in his native South. He was "haunted" by these questions: "If a white man became a Negro in the Deep South, what adjustments would he have to make? What is it like to experience discrimination based on skin color, something over which one has no control?"

The dermatologist agreed to cooperate with Griffin's project, darkening his skin "with a medication taken orally, followed by exposure to ultraviolet rays." Griffin, who had arranged with the editors of Sepia, the prominent black magazine, to write about his experiences, was in a hurry to get started and asked for "accelerated treatments," which he soon supplemented with stain. He also shaved his head, "since I had no curl." He did not look in the mirror until the process was complete, and when he did, he saw "the face and shoulders of a stranger -- a fierce, bald, very dark Negro." He was stunned:

"The transformation was total and shocking. I had expected to see myself disguised, but this was something else. I was imprisoned in the flesh of an utter stranger, an unsympathetic one with whom I felt no kinship. . . . I looked into the mirror and saw reflected nothing of the white John Griffin's past. No, the reflections led back to Africa, back to the shanty and the ghetto, back to the fruitless struggles against the mark of blackness. . . . I had tampered with the mystery of existence and I had lost the sense of my own being. This is what devastated me. The Griffin that was had become invisible."

Thus began Griffin's six-week odyssey through the South, a journey that took him from New Orleans to Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia. In March of the next year Sepia published his story, and in 1961 an expanded version was published as a book, "Black Like Me." The cumulative effect of the magazine story, the book and all the attendant publicity -- Griffin was interviewed by the television journalists Dave Garroway and Mike Wallace and featured in Time magazine -- was astonishing. The book became a bestseller. It awoke significant numbers of white Americans to truths about discrimination of which they had been unaware or had denied.

I was one of them. In 1961, I was 21 years old, newly graduated from Chapel Hill. I had written sympathetically about the emerging black protests for the student newspaper, but I was deeply ignorant about the truths of black life in America. That it took a white man to begin my awakening is, in hindsight, distressing, but Griffin's story managed to put me in a black man's shoes as nothing else had. (My first readings of James Baldwin's essays were still a couple of years in the future.) "Black Like Me" had a transforming effect on me, as apparently it did on innumerable others. That it has remained in print for more than four decades is testimony to its continuing influence, in great measure because it is taught in high schools and colleges.

Read now, for the first time since 1961, "Black Like Me" has lost surprisingly little of its power. I am more conscious of Griffin's occasional lapses into clumsy prose and his inclination to mount a soapbox (especially in the Epilogue he wrote in the 1970s for a new edition), but the story itself remains powerful, revealing and moving. If it is indeed being widely read by young people, that is all to the good, for it should act as a corrective to the characteristic American indifference to history that has rendered too many youths, white and black alike, ill-informed about the conditions in which African Americans lived not so long ago and out of which the civil rights movement arose.

John Howard Griffin was a remarkable, even extraordinary, man. Born in Dallas in 1920, he went to Europe at the age of 15 and trained "as a musicologist specializing in classical music, especially Gregorian chant," according to an online sketch by his widow. His tutors included Nadia Boulanger and Robert Casadesus. He worked for the French Resistance, served in the U.S. Army Air Corps and was wounded, went blind in 1946 yet wrote copiously -- he published two novels -- and converted to Catholicism. After inexplicably recovering his sight in 1957, he did journalism and published a couple of books of photographs. As a consequence of "Black Like Me," he received many awards before his death in 1980 of complications from diabetes, which he had suffered from his entire life.

What remains most important about "Black Like Me" is the force of the shock Griffin felt when he learned, in the most intimate ways, what it was -- and for many still is -- like to be black in America. In 1959 virtually none of the rights and opportunities that whites took for granted were extended to blacks, so Griffin immediately discovered that "an important part of my daily life was spent searching for the basic things that all whites take for granted: a place to eat, or somewhere to find a drink of water, a rest room, somewhere to wash my hands. More than once I walked into drugstores where a Negro can buy cigarettes or anything else except soda fountain service." Invariably he was directed to "the nearest Negro café [which] is always far away, it seems."

The book never answers a question that any reader is sure to ask: How was Griffin, with his Anglo features and Texas accent, able to be a convincing African American in the Deep South? At the advice of a black man whom he befriended soon after changing his skin color, he did shave the hair from his hands to improve the authenticity of his appearance, but would he not have looked simply like a dark-skinned Caucasian? The reader is justified in wondering how he got around this. Still, that's an essentially minor quibble, of the sort that slightly diminishes a book's credibility but doesn't really damage it.

Griffin was never a victim of the violence to which Southern blacks routinely were subjected in those days, but he had his close calls, and when he got to Hattiesburg, a Mississippi town where racial tensions were especially high, he felt that he was "in hell," a place that "could be no more lonely or hopeless, no more agonizingly estranged from the world of order and harmony." Desperately, he secretively made his true self known to P.D. East, a courageous (white) newspaper editor who "continued stubbornly to preach justice" despite virulent hostility from the white community. East and his wife took Griffin in for a couple of rejuvenating nights, before he headed toward Mobile.

He got there by hitchhiking, mostly with whites. Generally they were friendly, but almost all "showed morbid curiosity about the sexual life of the Negro, and all had, at base, the same stereotyped image of the Negro as an inexhaustible sex-machine with oversized genitals and a vast store of experiences, immensely varied." They assumed "that marital fidelity and sex as love's goal of union with the beloved object were exclusively the white man's property." One burly white man asked him if his wife "ever had it from a white man," and said: "We figure we're doing you people a favor to get some white blood in your kids." This "grotesque hypocrisy slapped me as it does all Negroes."

When Griffin got to Mobile, he tried to find a job, but with no luck. One foreman told him: "We're getting you people weeded out from the better jobs at this plant. . . . Pretty soon we'll have it so the only jobs you can get here are the ones no white man would have." Things looked a bit better in Montgomery, where "Martin Luther King, Jr.'s influence, like an echo of Gandhi's, prevails," and in Atlanta, where, "though segregation and discrimination still prevail and still work a hardship, great strides have been made -- strides that must give hope to every observer of the South."

Overall, though, the portrait that Griffin paints of the South is gloomy. Everywhere he went, "the criterion is nothing but the color of skin. My experience proved that. [Whites] judged me by no other quality. My skin was dark. That was sufficient reason for them to deny me those rights and freedoms without which life loses its significance and becomes a matter of little more than animal survival." He became depressed, and his face lapsed into "the strained, disconsolate expression that is written on the countenance of so many Southern Negroes." He "decided to try to pass back into white society" and scrubbed off the stain; immediately "I was once more a first-class citizen." The knowledge gave him little joy.

A few months later, as his story became public, he was hanged in effigy in the Texas town where he lived with his wife and four children. They moved to Mexico for a while, then to Fort Worth. For the rest of his life he was an outspoken advocate of civil rights who had, as much as or more than any other white person in the country, earned his stripes. His influence is felt to this day through this remarkable book.

"Black Like Me" is available in a Signet paperback ($7.99). Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is yardleyj@washpost.com.

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