John Howard Griffin (1961). Black Like Me.
In 1959, a Texas journalist by the name of John Howard Griffin decided to embark on a scientific research project. By the end of the experiment, he would be a changed man in more ways than one. With the help of a medical doctor and the support of his family, John underwent treatment (with Methzosalen and UV light) that altered the pigment of his skin, until this white man appeared black. He then traveled through the southern states of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia for 6 weeks, experiencing life as a black man. Black Like Me, written by John Howard Griffin and published first in 1961 (it has been republished in eight U.S. printings since) chronicles one white man’s attempts to get inside the lives and minds of black Americans living in the still very segregated south.
Griffin, this book, and his entire experiment have come under harsh criticism from both Whites and Blacks. In spite of this, his experience is quite striking and worthy of consideration.
Griffin describes his response to seeing himself in the mirror as a black man for the first time: “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” (10). He goes on to say, “The completeness of this transformation appalled me…I became two men, the observing one and the one who panicked, who felt Negroid even into the depths of his entrails” (11).
Griffin realized that, while he had heard friends and colleagues talk about the problem, he would not be able to fully experience what they described and understand the plight of the black man from an outsider’s perspective. His goal was, as someone who had lived a comfortable life as a white, middle-class male, to truly experience their circumstances to discover if things were “truly as bad as they seemed.”
The sharp contrast to how Griffin was treated as a white man, as opposed to how he was treated as a black man, in the same places, by the same people was appalling. Griffin recounted chilling tales of terrible prejudice, difficulty, hate, and surprise as even the most menial things (like getting a drink or finding a bathroom) became, at times, day-long events. Griffin began to understand the difficulty in searching for a job, when it required walking through town in search of a bathroom out back to freshen up or find a drink. During his six week experience John tried to acquire the means to support himself, means that are common to all individuals; food and water, restrooms, housing, employment, transportation and social support. Despite his attempts in various locations throughout the south, results seemed consistent despite location.
Food and water were minimal and hard to find. Cafes were available to African Americans, but they were few and often required traveling long distances. Bathrooms were segregated and, again, few and far between. In bleak circumstances John often found help within his black neighbors.
When looking for housing John found additional struggles. Living in boarding houses and sometimes sleeping on a passerby’s floor, standards were subpar. I could see John struggling to endure these circumstances, when just a few days prior he could have stayed at the best hotel as a white man. Again, even in these circumstances, he found solace in the company of his African American peers. They exchanged kind words, lived family lives similar to his own and were willing to share whatever they had with a stranger.
When looking for employment John had very little success. Even with education and experience no one would hire him. Even those willing to pursue higher education were destined to poverty because the system of racism did not consider them appropriate hires. With all his training the only employment he could find was shining shoes, and this was due to a prior connection.
Transportation was a very difficult problem and provided John with many different experiences. I was amazed by the conversations that he had with Caucasian men that picked him up while hitchhiking. He had his life threatened, was asked about his sexual life with his wife and spoken down to. It sounded like most picked him up for entertainment value. John also traveled by bus, where he was often taunted by bus drivers and Caucasian passengers.
One of the reactions he experienced as a black man was what is called ‘the hate stare.’ Griffin first experienced it in a bus station trying to buy a ticket. The white woman behind the counter made it obviously clear that she didn’t want to help him. When he asked about the next bus to Hattiesburg, “She answered rudely and glared at me with such loathing I knew I was receiving what the Negroes call ‘the hate stare.’ It was my first experience with it. It is far more than the look of disapproval one occasionally gets. This was so exaggeratedly hateful I would have been amused if I had not been so surprised.” (50) Another encounter with the ‘hate stare’ involved women leaving church on Sunday morning. Griffin, as a nicely dressed black man walks by the church just as the services ended; “…as the women came through the church doors and saw me, the ‘spiritual bouquets’ changed to hostility. The transformation was grotesque.” (121)
For his time, Griffin’s portrayals of the Black community were incredibly humanizing and dignifying. He depicts the community and camaraderie within the black community and is able to experience life within a culture to which he would otherwise never have had access. He tells stories of remarkable care and consideration for a total stranger like himself from his new black brothers and sisters. He describes one young man who walked with him several miles when Griffin asked directions, and then offered to come back when Griffin was finished with his business to walk him home. At another point, he stayed with another black family and noted their abject poverty, as well as their kindness, goodness, and love for one another, and for others. This family which had little materially to offer invited a stranger from the side of the road in and extended every act of hospitality that was possible, simply because that was the way one should treat another human being. He describes the solidarity on several bus rides, as well as the tension that blacks in the south constantly encounter while traveling, and relates a few of the “inside jokes” and subtle humor that blacks in the south picked up on and shared together.
Another striking aspect of Griffin’s experiment is the experience he went through as he came out of this social experiment. Whites in his Virginia hometown expressed anger and outrage, as many could not fathom why anyone would undertake an experiment to help create equality for other races. Threats were made, effigies were hung in the intersections, and eventually his family was forced to move for fear of safety. It was a brutal demonstration of how deeply seeded racism can be in people, and how dangerous and angry it can quickly become.
Even though this book was written in the early 60’s at the beginning of the Civil Rights movement, and there was hope that things would change, the events happening in the U.S. today point out that we have not changed enough. As an old gentleman in a café said, “It’s a vicious circle, Mr. Griffin, and I don’t know how we’ll get out of it. They put us low, and then blame us for being down there and say that since we are low, we can’t deserve our rights.” (40) The events in Ferguson and New York only highlight how twisted our systems are and how difficult it will be to bring about the change that is needed.
Questions for Reflection and Discussion
- How did you feel about Griffin’s decision to undergo this transformation? Do you agree that the experiment had some design flaws? What are some ways the experiment could have been adjusted to produce a more objective examination?
- If you had hypothesized how this experiment might have gone before you read the book, what would you have predicted?
- What aspects his experience were the most eye opening or insightful for you? What was most unexpected encounter in the book?
- What has changed since the 1960’s? Is the situation for people of color any different?
- Toward the end of the book Griffin is asked, “Your children don’t hate us, do they?” (164) Griffin answers, “Children have to be taught that kind of filth…” How can we work together to ensure our children are not taught to hate?
- Without going to the extremes that John Griffin did, what are some practical actions you can take that this book inspired?
- How can our churches improve and support better race relations?
- How can we as individuals work to change the systems that are prejudicial toward people of color and other ethnicities?
- This book has the tremendous ability to start discussions desperately needed in our time and culture about injustice and oppression, both personal and institutional, which is difficult for an outsider to perceive or believe. Consider reading this book with others and agree to allow for safe, respectful, honest, and thoughtful dialogue and debate as you go along.
- While the nation has made progress in the civil rights discussion, certainly more is needed. Take an analytical look at what systems are still broken in our world, and what issues are within your sphere of influence; whether it’s at your workplace, in your community, or in larger contexts like city or country.
- This book highlights the blind spots were are ignorant to, or ignore. Let this book be a catalyst to ask others from different cultures or backgrounds what blind spots you might personally have. Listening to one another, and respectfully guiding one another, is how we can learn and grow.
Dan Hall, Alicia Lindley, and Susanne R. McCarron, 2014© 2018 CYS