John Howard Griffin’s memoir Black Like Me portrays the quest of the author to discover first-hand what living in America was like for a Black man in the year 1959. While the book is a highly opinionated recitation by the author of systemic racism, particularly in the Southern United States in the mid-twentieth century, it is his perspective that highlights the varying degrees of racial oppression permeating the nation in that era.
As a White man, at the outset of the author’s quest to understand the experiences of a Black person facing racial prejudice, he anticipates and willingly accepts certain changes that he would encounter once he medically altered his appearance to pass as a Black man prior to his journey:
How else except by becoming a Negro could a White man hope to learn the truth? Though we lived side by side throughout the South, communication between the two races had simply ceased to exist. Neither really knew what went on with those of the other race. The Southern Negro will not tell the White man the truth. He long ago learned that if he speaks the truth unpleasing to the White, the White will make life miserable for him.
The only way I could see to bridge the gap between us was to become a Negro. I decided I would do this.
I prepared to walk into a life that appeared suddenly mysterious and frightening. With my decision to become a Negro I realized that I, a specialist in race issues, really knew nothing of the Negro’s real problem.
While Griffin is sincerely dedicated to the cause of racial justice, he acknowledges his lack of knowledge of the full extent of the racial difficulties in the country. Nevertheless, he proceeds with his plan to alter his racial appearance. As he makes the change and looks in the mirror, an unexpected transformation occurs:
Turning off all the lights, I went into the bathroom and closed the door. I stood in the darkness before the mirror, my hand on the light switch. I forced myself to flick it on.
In the flood of light against the 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 found no kinship. All traces of the John Griffin I had been were wiped from existence.
Once the author begins his journey, he is confronted by prejudice and racism way beyond the scope he had anticipated. However, the real change is the unanticipated transformation he experiences as he loses his very identity.
In this memoir, the author attempts to evoke the senses of his readers through his diary entries relating his factual involvements with racism. He is successful at this attempt and does try to remain positive and hopeful for the future. He sees the good in all races and stresses love and tolerance as the pathway to real social change, not violence. However, his extreme physical alteration has also modified his personality beyond his expectations.