(Critical Guide to Censorship and Literature)

The Work

One of the books referred to as the “dirty thirty” by a number of scholars, Black Like Me has ranked among the thirty books most frequently attacked after 1965. It was one of eleven on the list that dealt with non-Anglo-Saxon whites. The Southern racial climate of the 1950’s and the 1960’s Civil Rights movement tended to indicate to many that censorship of these eleven books was based on racial motivations.

Griffin’s initial intention in writing Black Like Me was simply to research the conditions of African Americans in the South. After he began, however, he realized that to get inside the “skin” of an African American and to experience their suffering, he had to become one. He then artificially changed his skin coloring to brown and traveled through the South as a black man. His book recounts his treatment at the hands of both white and black people.

Criticized as not reflecting a true portrait of Southern society, Black Like Me was also praised by supporters as having removed the pretensions that existed in America. In 1966 a renewed attack was made on the publication of a paperback edition, which was deemed unfit for children.

Additional Information

In 1959—the same year that Griffin undertook his masquerade—Stetson Kennedy, another southern journalist, published Jim Crow Guide to the USA: The Laws, Customs, and Etiquette Governing the Conduct of Nonwhites and Other Minorities as Second- Class Citizens. This book (available in reprint editions) catalogs all the discriminatory laws that the Civil Rights movement worked to overcome during the 1960’s.


(American Culture and Institutions Through Literature, 1960-1969)

The Work

In 1959, Texas journalist John Howard Griffin began studying the conditions in which African Americans were living in the South. As a white southerner, however, he felt he could not appreciate what it meant to be black and wondered what it would take fully to understand the realities of racial discrimination. “How else,” he eventually concluded, “except by becoming a Negro could a white man hope to learn the truth?” Black Like Me is the story of his subsequent experiment in masquerading as an African American to answer the questions his study posed.

Assisted by a dermatologist, he used dyes, oral medications, and sun lamps to darken his skin, shaving his head to complete his physical transformation. He then slipped into a November New Orleans night to begin life as an African American. He kept a journal over the next month and a half, during which he visited cities in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama. His journal entries form the narrative of his book. In simple, stark descriptions of each day, they reveal the powerful lesson that Griffin learned during his brief odyssey: that being black, especially in a strange town, could make even the most trivial aspects of day- to-day life—such as finding a “colored” bathroom or getting a drink of water—a perilous adventure. Many of his experiences were so ordinary as to seem banal, especially in contrast to the horrendous violence that many African Americans then faced. Griffin’s narrative meant little or nothing to black southerners; to his white readers, however, they were revealing and even startling.


(The entire section is 660 words.)

Form and Content Summary

(Critical Edition of Young Adult Fiction)

John Howard Griffin’s Black Like Me is a series of thirty-nine journal entries, which range from less than a page to thirty-three pages in length. His first entry was made on October 28, 1959, and his final entry on August 17, 1960. The book can be conveniently divided into three sections. The first consists of nine entries, made between October 28 and November 14. In this section, Griffin describes his initial idea to pass as an African American, his funding by Sepia (an African-American magazine with wide circulation in the South), and the process by which his skin was darkened (he used oral medication, sun lamps, and dye) over a five-day period. He concludes the section by describing his initial passing as an African American in New Orleans for seven days, during which time he learned the unwritten laws of strict segregation.

The second section consists of eight entries, made between November 14 and November 28. This is the longest and most important section of the book. It contains several long, powerful entries, describing his travels (by bus and by hitchhiking) to Hattiesburg and Biloxi, Mississippi, and to Mobile and Montgomery, Alabama. Griffin was shaken by several of his experiences, and in Mobile he crossed back to the white world.

The third section consists of twenty-two entries, many of them very short, made between November 28 and August 17. Griffin describes how he and a photographer from Sepia researched some...

(The entire section is 556 words.)