What motivated Griffin to change the color of his skin and take on the identity of a black man, as recorded in Black Like Me?

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John Howard Griffin , a Texan journalist and novelist, was thoroughly dedicated to the furthering of racial justice in the US and understood that his ability to truly comprehend the reality of racism against black people in 1950s America was limited due to his identity as a white man. In...

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John Howard Griffin, a Texan journalist and novelist, was thoroughly dedicated to the furthering of racial justice in the US and understood that his ability to truly comprehend the reality of racism against black people in 1950s America was limited due to his identity as a white man. In order to write a vivid and first-hand report on the horrors of racism against black Americans, Griffin decided to undergo a medical process to alter his appearance and change the color of his skin in order to present as a black man. Griffin reasoned that through this change of appearance, he would be able to truly immerse himself in the black experience of his time and further his ability to struggle for racial justice. Griffin's experience in World War II of joining the French resistance and helping to smuggle Jewish children into Britain provided a powerful motivation for his dedication to justice and contributed to his particularly heightened sensitivity to the plight of black Americans.

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John Howard Griffin was an aspiring ethnographer who had formerly studied people in the Solomon Islands before writing Black Like Me. In the late 1950s, he studied the racial situation in the American South, which he thought was a disgrace to the country.

Referring to his conversation with a magazine editor in which Griffin posed the idea of writing his book, he writes the following:

"I told him the South’s racial situation was a blot on the whole country, and especially reflected against us overseas; and that the best way to find out if we had second-class citizens and what their plight was would be to become one of them."

Griffin felt that only by looking like an African American person could he understand some of what it was like to be black in the South and to document their situation. He eventually dyed his skin and shaved his hair to appear to look like an African American person. Griffin was a gifted ethnographer and writer who was motivated to do what he thought was necessary to truly understand what it was like to walk around in a black man's shoes.

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John Howard Griffin started out with the purpose of conducting "scientific research" into the attitudes related to racial segregation for the purpose of writing "journalistically objective articles for Sepia (a popular magazine for African Americans in the southern United States at that time) detailing his experiences." His method of research was based on turning himself into a black man so that he could conduct his research through first-hand experience.

To his surprise and dismay, however, Griffin discovered that racial prejudice was present within his own thinking process.

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.

This discovery was unexpected and added new dimensions to his learning process. His research became much more personal, and the threats and reactions experienced were interpreted differently once Griffin understood he needed to deal with his own prejudices, as well as documenting those he encountered in others.

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