Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 660
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 idea that a white man could actually pass for a black man seems improbable (as a later film adaptation of Griffin’s book demonstrated), but that scarcely mattered to those who read Black Like Me. The book transcended that problem, making white readers see African American life in ways that narratives written by African Americans could not. By looking at the injustices African Americans suffered through the eyes of a white person, white readers could imagine themselves in his place. They instantly became more sensitive to the inconveniences, indignities, and perils that millions of fellow Americans who happened to be black experienced daily—particularly in the South. Many readers found Griffin’s simple story shocking.
Black Like Me first appeared in 1961, just as the Civil Rights movement was about to crest and the entire nation was to witness—through the spectacle of live television—the full brutality of racial discrimination in 1960’s America. The book’s publication instantly raised a storm of controversy—one that lasted through the 1960’s and never fully abated. The book made the best-seller lists and was adopted for classroom use in many high schools and colleges. The general sensation it caused made it one of the most influential American books of the decade.
The conditions that Griffin described as an eye-witness in his book were mild compared with the vivid displays of racial injustice exposed on television and in newspapers and magazines during the mid-1960’s. Nevertheless, many white southerners charged that he portrayed the South unfairly. This charge stuck to the book, which became one of the most- banned books in U.S. schools and libraries throughout the last third of the twentieth century.
Jules Tannebaum directed a film adaptation, Black Like Me (1964), in which James Whitmore portrayed the character based on Griffin. Among the film’s failings was a makeup job on Whitmore so unconvincing that it spoiled the credibility of the story’s premise: that a white man could pass as a black man.
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.
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