“Nothing can describe the withering horror of this. You feel lost, sick at heart before such unmasked hatred, not so much because it threatens you as because it shows humans in such an inhuman light. You see a kind of insanity, something so obscene the very obscenity of it (rather than its threat) terrifies you. It was so new I could not take my eyes from the man’s face. I felt like saying: “What in God’s name are you doing to yourself?”
― John Howard Griffin, from his book Black Like Me
This month marks the 50TH Anniversary of the publishing of the bestseller Black Like Me by John Howard Griffin.
This new edition, published by Wings Press in San Antonio, Texas, with a foreword by Studs Terkel, chronicles the story of Mr. Griffin, a White journalist who dyed his skin black and set off on a journey of discovering the stunted segregated lives of Black people, the mindsets of White people against Blacks, the American South–and himself.
After contacting the Black-owned magazine Sepia, about his plans to travel as a Black man in the South, the magazine agreed to run a series of articles about his experiences. On October 28, 1959, John Howard Griffin underwent his transformation. While under a doctor’s care and supervision, Mr. Griffin took the drug Oxsoralen to darken his skin, as he sat under a sunlamp, and ground stain into his flesh to further darken and even out the skin tone. After seven days of this darkening process, Mr. Griffin set out on November 7, 1959 through the states of Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Mississippi.
He traveled on foot, by bus, and hitched car rides. He lived in the segregated Black sections of town, staying at Black-only hotels, eating at Black-run cafes, and traveled with Black women and men.
After seven days of hitchhiking, fending off venomous graphically intimate sexual questions from racist White men who stopped to give him a ride, Mr. Griffin took comfort in staying with an impoverished Black sharecropper family. The little children kissed him, wished him a good night, and he laid down on the floor, but, he was unable to sleep. The children of the family humbled him so much that in the night as they slept, he crept out of the house to cry tears at the cruelty dealt them by racism and segregation:
“I felt again the Negro children’s soft lips against mine, so like the feel of my own children’s good-night kisses. I saw again their large eyes, guileless, not yet aware that doors into wonderlands of security, opportunity and hope were closed to them.”
Born June 16, 1920, in Dallas, Texas, and raised in Fort Worth, Texas, Mr. Griffin, who joined the French underground resistance during the German occupation of France, helped smuggle Jewish children out of Paris, and into England where they would be safe. In 1940, he returned to America, enlisted in the Army Air Corps. In 1945, while on the Pacific island of Morotai, he had a concussion from an explosion that impaired his vision. Upon returning to Mansfield, Texas to his family’s farm, a doctor declared him legally blind.
Over the next ten years, he married, started a family, and began to write books. Over the course of several weeks, his sight returned. But, the idea for his book, Black Like Me, occurred to him while he was still blind.
In 1960, after Mr. Griffin had returned to Mansfield, Sepia magazine began publishing portions of his book. News of his passing as a Black man spread throughout Mansfield. Time magazine wrote an article about him. Mike Wallace interviewed him on national TV.
Angry Whites in Mansfield burned him in effigy. His family was driven into exile in Mexico. There is where Mr. Griffin wrote his book, Black Like Me in 1961. But, through it all, he continued to speak of his journey as a Black man. In 1964, while standing by the road in Mississippi with a flat tire, he saw a car slowing down. Because of his speaking about his experiences, he was followed as many Civil Rights workers often were followed in the South. Thinking that they were going to help him, they instead drug him away from his car, beat him with chains, and left him for dead. It took Mr. Griffin five months to recover from this attack. He was 44 at the time.
He spent his remaining years lecturing about his experiences as a Black man. In his lectures he always stated, “I don’t speak for Black people, I speak for myself.” But, it was in facing his own racism that he grew as a fellow brother to Black women and men. In the beginning of his book, when he sees his black face staring back at him in the mirror he realizes the gravity about the decision he has made, and it stuns him:
“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 in no way resembled me. 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.”
The book was made into a movie in 1964, starring the late James Whitmore, a film which I still own on Laserdisc. To this day, to me the movie still has a surrealism to it that puts it right up there with some of Salvador Dali’s most famous artwork.
The film can be found at the Forgotten Cinema website for $14.95 on DVD.
But, Mr. Griffin came to grips with the contempt and animosity towards the man who faced him in the mirror–the Black man in the mirror. He had realized his unbiased intellectualism, but he also realized that inward he was a racist, and that he had to come to grips with that dichotomy. While on his journey, most revealing to Mr. Griffin was in how he was treated by Blacks and Whites, when he switched back and forth between different identities. He would notice the reserved and the negative reactions he received from Blacks who saw him when he was a White man, and the cruel, contemptuous reactions from Whites—the “hate stare”, who saw him when they thought he was a Black man–people, who just days, or hours before, had treated him kindly when they thought he was a member of their race.
Rest at pale evening. . . .
A tall slim tree. . . .
Night coming tenderly
Black like me.
from “Dream Variation”
On September 9, 1980, Mr. Griffin died of a heart attack and complications from diabetes. He was 60 years old. His widow, Elizabeth (who remarried, marrying Griffin’s longtime friend and biographer, Roberto Bonazzi, author of the afterword of the 50TH Anniversary edition), died in 1983. Their four children still live in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.
John Howard Griffin’s monumental work is still taught in some high schools across America.
Uncommon Vision: The Life and Times of John Howard Griffin Starring Pete Hurst (Sep 23, 2010)
Prison of Culture: Beyond Black Like Me by John Howard Griffin (Oct 1, 2011)
The importance of his book addressed the fact that if you grew up White in the South you had to face up to this racism and the destruction caused by the worship of whiteness, and that if you truly wanted to see an end to the destruction that whiteness caused in both the lives of Blacks and Whites, that you, as a young White person had to set about on the path towards eradicating it from your mind, your life, and in your daily interactions with your fellow Black citizens.
As a White person you owed it to the creation and maintenance of justice in talking to, teaching to, and exhorting the White people you lived, raised, and worked among to end this vicious curse of white racism hatred.