Many people have read this book, first published in 1960, or at least have heard of it – how a white writer took medication and underwent sessions of ultra-violet light, and with the help of applying stain, darkened his skin enough so that he could shave his head and pass for an African American man. He travelled and stayed in New Orleans and parts of Mississippi and Alabama, for a period of about six weeks. He did it because at that time segregation was still in effect. There were laws in the South - “Jim Crow” legislation –maintaining separateness, and written and unwritten policies in the North that supported their own segregation of education, jobs and housing. However, most whites in our culture didn’t think that African Americans were segregated from whites because of their skin color. If segregation was just about skin color, then racism had to be in effect, and few Americans believed that they lived in a racist society. Instead, there were a lot of ‘reasons’ and ‘truths’ that were supported and repeated and passed on, which indicated that the separation was necessary because of ‘what colored people were really like’. Since African Americans had once been slaves, and their cultural background was African, they were believed to be simpler than whites, more childish, less disciplined, less idealistic, less intellectual…the list was endless.
John Howard Griffin was born in Texas, in 1920, and had inherited a benevolent racism from his family, who accepted segregation but modeled “Christian” attitudes toward African Americans, and never used the “n-word”. Griffin himself was shocked when at age 15 he attended school in France and witnessed black students sitting at the same lunch table as white students. As an adult writer, when he wanted to investigate the phenomenon of black suicide, he was stymied by the response of many African Americans to his survey. They implied that he would not be able to learn about African Americans with his “white” thinking. He became intrigued and was challenged to get past this color barrier.
The book is written in diary form, starting from a week before he decides to switch over and how he stays with a friend while taking the medication and changing his appearance. We share his fear and trepidation as he takes his first step out into the New Orleans night, to wait for a bus. All his former experience and what he was accustomed to as a white man are gone, as shop owners who had smiled at him before now served him with blank faces. More than a stranger in a strange land, Griffin experiences the suffocation of feeling eclipsed, as he searches for toilet facilities and a place to get a drink of water. Drugstores will sell him cigarettes, but he can have no access to their soda fountain, where white customers can have water served to them. Griffin spends his days applying for jobs, only to be met with refusal after refusal. One employer even explains that his company “doesn’t want your people”. Menaced one night by an aggressive young white man through dark streets, forced to eat and drink when the opportunity arises so as not to miss it, the final nail in Griffin’s coffin is the ‘hate stare’ – those whites whose faces change into dislike and repulsion when they come into any near contact with him.
As much as Griffin is sickened at his reception as a black person by whites, the warmth many African Americans show him is heartening to the reader, evidence of our common humanity in the hardest of circumstances. At one point Griffin is stranded hitchhiking along the Mississippi coast, and is offered the hospitality of an African American laborer returning to his home. With just two rooms for the man and his wife and six children, Griffin has to sleep on the floor. But the children, living so far out in the country, are enchanted to have a visitor. The wife serves beans for supper. The five candy bars that Griffin contributes, along with his presence, turns the meal into a party. And all of the children want to kiss him goodnight. It’s only after the family is sleeping that Griffin has to get up and creep outside and hold a silent vigil for the emotions and realizations struggling within him. As the children kissed him, he thought of his own children, and could see no difference. These children had no real idea yet of what they were up against. The father worked under a never ending debt to the company store, yet the mother and father still worked to bring up their family, expressing thanks for their healthy children.
After the book was published Griffin was burned in effigy in his home town of Mansfield, Texas, and he and his parents finally moved to Mexico to escape the threats and social isolation. (A bit ironically, I noticed that the American Library Association declared Mansfield “a literary landmark” in February of 2011.) A film was made of the book in 1964, but was criticized as being “overly melodramatic and unsubtle” by the New York Times. Someone should make a good movie of “Black Like Me” and give us our past as it really was, instead of the currently showing film “The Help.”