Griffin, John Howard
John Howard Griffin
Excerpt from Black Like Me
Published in 1961
In the book Black Like Me, white author John Howard Griffin dramatically describes the crushing effects of racism on people's lives in the United States. Griffin temporarily transformed himself into a black man for almost two months. Through this exceptional experiment, his true story highlights just how separate the two worlds of whites and blacks actually were in 1959—living in different parts of towns, held to different rules of behavior, and enjoying different educational and job opportunities. Though fully expecting differences, Griffin found the extent of differences shocking. Despite being well-dressed and articulate, Griffin fails to find a job during his journey as a black man through the American South.
Griffin was born in Dallas, Texas, and raised in a region where local laws, referred to as Jim Crow Laws, enforced separation of whites and people of color in almost all aspects of life. For a short time during his youth, Griffin lived and attended school in France. He learned that the French did not have the same racial attitudes as Americans. The gross unfairness of such prejudiced attitudes toward black Americans led Griffin to dedicate his life to combating racial prejudice.
"All the courtesies in the world do not cover up the one vital and massive discourtesy—that the Negro is treated not even as a second-class citizen, but as a tenth-class one."
By 1959, Griffin was increasingly dismayed with the slow progress in ending racial discrimination (treating groups of people differently) in the nation, particularly in the South. At the age of thirty-nine, he decided to attempt a radical experiment aimed toward exploring the world of black Americans. To better understand what life was like for blacks, his plan was to undergo medical treatment to temporarily change his skin color and pose as a black man.
Griffin began his dermatological (skin) treatments on October 28, 1959, in New Orleans. The treatment involved exposure to ultraviolet light, oral medications, and skin dyes while staying at a friend's home. As he began treatments, he ate at a fancy outdoor restaurant and wondered how he would be treated with different skin color. Griffin then shaved his head and used a stain to further darken his skin. Despite changing skin color, Griffin decided to not change his identity otherwise. He kept the same name and occupation as a writer. In final preparation for his experience, Griffin met a man named Sterling Williams, a shoe shiner, to serve as his guide into the black community of New Orleans.
As he ventured out into the world as a black man, Griffin described the difficulties in finding food and shelter, finding public restrooms and drinking fountains, riding a bus, sitting on a park bench, and cashing a check. He found these experiences terribly humiliating. Beyond that, he was subjected to the unhealthy conditions of ghetto (an impoverished, crowded neighborhood) life and constant threat of violence from whites. As a black person, he also suffered from the constant silent hateful stares, and always being called "boy." He had to ride toward the rear of buses and trolleys, could no longer order drinks at the soda fountain of drugstores, and had to stay in hotel rooms that were small and filthy. Though already well aware of racial prejudice in America, Griffin was still stunned by its severity. It seemed he heard the derogatory, offensive word "nigger" aimed at him from every direction while out in public places. Whites expressing their prejudices constantly occurred everywhere.
After two weeks of unsuccessful job hunting in New Orleans, Griffin struck out on a bus to the Deep South of Mississippi and Alabama, an area with an even greater reputation for white hostility toward blacks. During routine bus stops along the road to Hattiesburg, Mississippi, Griffin learned that blacks were not allowed off the bus like whites to
Jim Crow Laws
Race has always been central to American laws. Prior to the Civil War, most blacks were slaves. In legal terms, they were considered property, not humans. Slaves could not bring lawsuits, marry, vote, enter into business contracts, or testify in court except against another slave. Immediately following the Civil War in 1865, Southern states used Black Codes to maintain white supremacy by limiting the rights of the newly freed slaves. Many northern states had Black Codes from the early 1800s. The Black Codes denied freed slaves the right to vote, to possess any form of weapon, and to leave a job and move elsewhere. They were considered servants now instead of slaves. Disobeying a Black Code could lead to imprisonment or whippings. Soon thrown out by the temporary Southern governments established immediately after the war, the Codes were followed in the 1890s by Jim Crow laws, which strictly enforced public racial segregation (keeping the races separate) in almost every aspect of public life.
By 1915, all Southern states had some form of these Jim Crow laws. The laws varied from one state to another, but their primary thrust was to regulate separate use of water fountains, public transportation, rest rooms, and other public facilities by whites and blacks. They were called Jim Crow laws after a racist fictional character who was popular in America in the early 1800s. The character was a white person with blackened face depicting an uneducated, poor rural black person.
Jim Crow laws discriminated against blacks in many ways. For example, they limited the ability of blacks to vote in elections by charging fees, called poll taxes, and applying literacy (reading and writing) tests that were not required of whites. Blacks were also barred from buying homes in certain neighborhoods or areas.
A major U.S. Supreme Court decision in 1896 gave support to Jim Crow laws. The Court finally began striking down such laws about twenty years later. Nonetheless, Jim Crow laws remained in effect in the South into the 1950s. In 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court issued the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision. In the case, a lawsuit challenged a local school board decision in Topeka, Kansas, that denied black student Linda Brown, a third-grader, from attending the all-white public school, which was the school nearest her home. Several other similar instances had occurred in other states, and they were all combined into a single Supreme Court case. The Brown decision stated that racially segregated public schools were illegal. This ruling ended the legal separation of the races in public elementary schools. By mid-1960s, the Jim Crow laws enforcing racial segregation were largely dismantled. However, the legacy of segregation persisted into the twenty-first century through segregationist attitudes and social customs that had been a part of American society for generations. Blacks still found inequality in such things as job and educational opportunities.
Certain unwritten social expectations accompanied Jim Crow laws. For example, a black man could not extend his hand to shake a white man's hand, nor could a black man make eye-contact with a white woman. A black person was expected to refer to whites as "Mr.," "Sir," or "Ma'am," and a black American had to ride in the back of buses or trucks that were also carrying whites. Penalties for violating these rules of behavior could be swift and brutal, including death by lynching. The event that sparked the Civil Rights Movement—Rosa Parks's (1913–2005) refusal to move to the back of a bus—was an act of civil disobedience against a Jim Crow busing law. Owing to the brave actions of Parks and many others, by the late twentieth century numerous laws and court rulings guaranteed minorities equal access to opportunities as well as equal protection under the laws.
stretch and go to a rest room. Upon arrival in Hattiesburg and while walking along a sidewalk, a car of young white men yelled obscenities and threw a tangerine at him.
During his journey through Mississippi and Alabama, Griffin discovered a defeated population of black Americans who displayed a sense of hopelessness. An exception was in Montgomery, Alabama, where black leaders were giving the local people hope and energy to force social change. They refused to acknowledge the legitimacy of the segregationist laws and other injustices. They also refused to be provoked by aggressive white behavior toward them. They would spark the civil rights movement that grew into a national effort to gain equal rights for minorities in the nation. By the early 1960s social and legal barriers based on racial prejudice began breaking down.
After several weeks of posing as a black man, Griffin briefly stopped taking his medication, and his skin color lightened. Alternating his skin color daily, he posed as a white man and a black man in the same places to observe the different treatment he received. Griffin was shocked once more by the dramatic change in how he was treated when his skin color changed. As a white man, whites were friendly and courteous, blacks suspicious and distrustful. As a white man, he again had easy access to stores, restaurants, and rest rooms. Griffin wore the same clothes as both a white and black man; they were considered shabby for a white man and well-dressed for a black man.
During the first week of December, Griffin journeyed to Georgia, still posing as a black man. In Atlanta, he was pleased to discover the progressive attitude toward race relations owing largely to the prominent black leaders of the area and newspapers supportive of justice for blacks.
Following his brief stay in Atlanta, Griffin returned to New Orleans as a black man with photographer Don Rutledge to visually document his early days of the experiment. Interestingly, people showed much suspicion around him, wondering why a white photographer would ever want to take photographs of a black person.
Overall through his journey, Griffin found quiet desperation in New Orleans, hopelessness and rebellion in Mississippi and Alabama, determination in Montgomery, Alabama, and hope in Atlanta. He captured this experience in his 1961 book Black Like Me.
Things to remember while reading the excerpt from Black Like Me:
- The main theme of the book is racial prejudice and segregation—how whites and blacks treat each other differently with little understanding of each other. However, another important theme is the human capacity for love—that good will survive, even when surrounded by evil such as prejudice.
- The book was published at the height of the civil rights movement in the United States, a time of great turbulence in American black communities. The book added to the turbulence as many whites despised its exposure of racism in the South and despised its author.
- Griffin is the only significant character in the book, a true story written in a diary form. He did not begin writing the book until after completing his experiment.
Excerpt from Black Like Me
I had my last visit with the doctor in the morning. The treatment had not worked as rapidly or completely as we had hoped, but I had a dark undercoating of pigment which I could touch up perfectly with stain. We decided I must shave my head, since I had no curl. The dosage was established and the darkness would increase as time passed. From there, I was on my own.
The doctor showed much doubt and perhaps regret that he had ever cooperated with me in this transformation….
I did not look into the mirror until I finished dressing and had packed my duffel bags.
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 felt no kinship….
I caught the bus into town, choosing a seat halfway to the rear. As we neared Canal, the car began to fill with whites. Unless they could find a place to themselves or beside another white, they stood in the aisle.
A middle-aged woman with stringy gray hair stood near my seat. She wore a clean but faded print house dress…. Her face looked tired and I felt uncomfortable. As she staggered with the bus's movement my lack of gallantry tormented me. I half rose from my seat to give it to her, but Negroes behind me frowned disapproval. I realized I was "going against the race" … I slumped back under the intensity of their stares….
I learned a strange thing—that in a jumble of unintelligible talk, the word "nigger" leaps out with electric clarity. You always hear it and always it stings. And it always casts the person using it into a category of brute ignorance….
I left the bus on Canal Street. Other Negroes aboard eyed me not with anger, as I had expected, but rather with astonishment that any black man could be so stupid….
I hurried to the alley and walked down it into the gloom of a cluttered courtyard. A few Negroes, who could not enter the white bar, were served from the back. They stood around or sat at wooden tables drinking. I saw a sign that read GENTLEMEN and was almost at the door when several voices shouted.
"Hey! You can't go in there. Hey!"
I turned back toward them, astonished that even among skid row derelict joints they had "separate facilities."
"Where do I go?" I asked.
"Clean on back there to the back," a large drunk Negro said, pointing with a wild swinging gesture that almost made him lose his balance.
I went another fifty feet down the alley and stepped into the wooden structure. It was oddly clean. I latched the door with a hook that scarcely held….
I began to get thirsty and asked Sterling [Sterling Williams, a black shoeshine man who helped guide Griffin into the black community of New Orleans] where I could find a drink.
"You've got to plan ahead now," he said. "You can't do like you used to when you were a white man. You can't just walk in anyplace and ask for a drink or use the restroom. There's a Negro café over in the French Market about two blocks up. They got a fountain in there where you can drink. The nearest toilet's the one you just came from…."
Joe [a black acquaintance of Griffin's] began to cook our lunch on the sidewalk. He put paper and kindling from an orange crate into a gallon can and set it afire. When the flames had reduced to coals, he placed a bent coat hanger over the top as a grill and set a pan on it to heat. He squatted and stirred with a spoon. I learned it was a mixture of coon, turnips and rice, seasoned with thyme, bay leaf and green peppers. Joe had cooked it at home the night before and brought it in a milk carton. When it was heated through, Joe served Sterling and me portions in cut-down milk cartons. He ate directly from the pan. It was good, despite the odor of rot that smoked up from it….
Two days of incessant walking, mostly looking for jobs. I wanted to discover what sort of work an educated Negro, nicely dressed, could find. I met no rebuffs, only gentleness when they informed me they could not use my services as typist, bookkeeper, etc.…
The next morning I went to the Y café next door for breakfast of grits and eggs. The elderly gentleman who ran the café soon had me talking—or rather listening. He foresaw a new day for the race. Great strides had been made, but greater ones were to be made still. I told him of my unsuccessful job-hunting. He said it was all part of the pattern of economics—economic injustice.
"You take a young white boy. He can go through school and college with a real incentive. He knows he can make good money in any profession when he gets out. But can a Negro—in the South? No, I've seen many make brilliant grades in college. And yet when they come home in the summers to earn a little money, they have to do the most menial work. And even when they graduate it's a long hard pull. Most take postal jobs, or preaching or teaching jobs. This is the cream. What about the others, Mr. Griffin? A man knows no matter how hard he works, he's never going to quite manage … taxes and prices eat up more than he can earn. He can't see how he'll ever have a wife and children. The economic structure just doesn't permit it unless he's prepared to live down in poverty and have his wife work too. That's part of it. Our people aren't educated because they either can't afford it or else they know education won't earn them the jobs it would a white man. Any kind of family life, any decent standard of living seems impossible from the outset. So a lot of them, without even understanding the cause, just give up…."
After a week of wearying rejection, the newness had worn off. My first vague, favorable impression that it was not as bad as I had thought it would be came from courtesies of the whites toward the Negro in New Orleans. But this was superficial. All the courtesies in the world do not cover up the one vital and massive discourtesy—that the Negro is treated not even as a second-class citizen, but as a tenth-class one. His day-to-day living is a reminder of his inferior status. He does not become calloused to these things—the polite rebuffs when he seeks better employment; hearing himself referred to as nigger, coon, jigaboo; having to bypass available rest-room facilities or eating facilities to find one specified for him. Each new reminder strikes at the raw spot, deepens the wound….
The Negro's only salvation from complete despair lies in his belief, the old belief of his forefathers, that these things are not directed against him personally, but against his race, his pigmentation ….
But at the time of the rebuff, even when the rebuff is impersonal, such as holding his bladder until he can find a "Colored" sign, the Negro cannot rationalize. He feels it personally and it burns him. It gives him a view of the white man that the white man can … contrive to arrange life so that it destroys the Negro's sense of personal value, degrades his human dignity, deadens the fibers of his being….
I decided it was time to go into that state [Mississippi] so dreaded by Negroes….
In the colored waiting room, which was not labeled as such, but rather as COLORED CAFÉ, presumably because of interstate travel regulations, I took the last empty seat. The room was crowded with glum faces, faces dead to all enthusiasm, faces of people waiting….
They called the bus. We filed out into the high-roofed garage and stood in line, the Negroes to the rear, the whites to the front. Buses idled their motors, filling the air with a stifling odor of exhaust fume….
It was late dusk when the bus pulled into some little town for a stop. "We get about ten minutes here," Bill [fellow bus rider] said. "Let's get off and stretch our legs. They've got a men's room here if you need to go"….
The whites rose and ambled off. Bill and I led the Negroes toward the door. As soon as he saw us, the driver blocked our way….
"Where do you think you're going?" he asked, his heavy cheeks quivering with each word.
"I'd like to go to the rest room." I smiled and moved to step down.
He tightened his grip on the door facings and shouldered in close to block me. "Does your ticket say for you to get off here?" he asked.
"No sir, but the others—"
"Then you get … back in your seat and don't you move till we get to Hattiesburg," he commanded….
"I can't be bothered rounding up all you people when we get ready to go"….
We turned like a small herd of cattle and drifted back to our seats. The others grumbled about how unfair it was. The large woman was apologetic, as though it embarrassed her for a stranger to see Mississippi's dirty linen ….
I sat in the monochrome gloom of dusk, scarcely believing that in this year of freedom any man could deprive another of anything so basic as the need to quench thirst or use the rest room. There was nothing of the feel of America here. It was rather some strange country suspended in ugliness. Tension hung in the air, a continual threat, even though you could not put your finger on it….
We arrived at Hattiesburg around eight thirty. Most of the Negroes hurried to the rest rooms….
As I walked down Mobile Street, a car full of while men and boys sped past. They yelled obscenities at me. A Satsuma (tangerine) flew past my head and broke against a building. The street was loud and raw, with tension as thick as fog….
Another car roared down the street, and the street was suddenly deserted, but the Negroes appeared again shortly. I sought refuge in a Negro drugstore and drank milk shakes as an excuse to stay there….
I knew of one white man in Hattiesburg to whom I might turn for help—a newspaperman, P. D. East. But I hesitated to call him. He has been so persecuted for seeking justice in race relations I was afraid my presence anywhere near him might further jeopardize him….
We discussed [after Griffin later returned to visit his friend P. D.] our experiences until late in the night….
He pointed out that these [local laws enforcing segregation] were simply the old story of legalized injustice. The local state legislature (in opposition to constitutional law), insisted that whatever it decided was de jure law, a position that wipes out the distinction between true and false judgments…. A law is not good merely because the legislature wills it, but the legislature has the mortal duty to will only that which is good.
This tendency to make laws that are convenient or advantageous rather than right has mushroomed in Southern legislatures. It has produced laws of cynicism scarcely believable in a civilized society. Even when these have been tested and thrown out as illegal by superior courts, they have in some instances continued to be enforced….
What happened next …
Griffin's two-month journey through the South posing as a black man not only highlighted to him on a personal level the intensity of racial prejudice against blacks, but greatly impressed him with the solidarity and support found among black Americans.
After returning to New Orleans in December, Griffin stopped taking his medication. With the return of his white skin color, Griffin returned to his Texas home and began writing about his experiences. Griffin's article appeared in the March 1960 issue of Sepia, a black-owned magazine established in 1947 in Ft. Worth, Texas, that focuses on issues and achievements of black Americans.
Griffin's story attracted considerable public attention. Following publication of the article, numerous prominent television programs and newsmagazines sought Griffin for interviews. His story spread around the world and congratulations on his exposure of racial prejudice poured in. By mid-June 1960, Griffin had received around six thousand letters. All but nine were supportive of his social experiment and resulting article.
However, in his hometown of Mansfield, open hostility against Griffin and his family came from white hate groups and others. He was burned in effigy (crude figure representative of a hated person), with the effigy painted half white and half black, on Main Street while police simply stood by and watched. A cross was burned in the schoolyard of a nearby black school, an action commonly taken by white supremacist (those who believe in the superiority of the white race over all others) terror groups. By August 1960, Griffin moved his family out of the United States and into Mexico for their safety. There they stayed for several years before returning to Texas. He also issued a public plea for racial tolerance in the nation.
Griffin's book, published in November 1961, drew many published reviews. One book reviewer called the experiment so simple in design that it was genius. Others found Griffin's observations about life in America unsettling. Another reviewer claimed it was more effective than any scientific study on race. Black Like Me was considered by many scholars and activists to be the most important book on racism in America in the twentieth century.
In the mid-1960s, the federal government established a number of social programs to aid blacks and others caught in a cycle of poverty. The programs included creation of the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to build low-income housing and provide rent assistance to those in need. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibited discrimination in employment and banned segregation in public facilities even if privately owned and operated. This included restaurants, hotels, stores, workplaces, and schools. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 struck down remaining barriers, such as poll taxes and literacy tests, imposed by states, allowing black Americans to more easily vote in elections.
Following publication of his book, Griffin continued efforts to improve the living conditions of blacks in America. Griffin concluded that only love and tolerance could change society, not the violence promoted by militant black leaders such as Malcolm X (1925–1965). Griffin received a number of awards. In 1960, he received the National Council of Negro Women Award, and in 1964 the Pope John XIII (d. 972) Pacen in Terris Peace and Freedom Award, which he shared with President John F. Kennedy (1917–1963; served 1961–63).
Did you know …
- Black Like Me remained required reading in thousands of high schools and colleges in the early twenty-first century.
- As a white man, Griffin observed that white people treated him with respect and blacks treated him with suspicion and fear. As a black man, blacks were generous and warm while whites were hostile and looked down at him. Griffin concluded that the two races do not understand each other.
- Race relations in Texas continued to be an issue at the end of the twentieth century, as demonstrated by the brutal murder of James Byrd (1949–1998) who was dragged to death behind a pickup truck by three young white supremacists. Two of the murderers received death sentences and the third received a sentence of life in prison.
- By the early twenty-first century, more than ten million copies of Black Like Me had been sold in the United States, Canada, Britain, Europe, and Japan.
Consider the following …
- The terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C., in September 2001 brought forward a clash of cultures in their aftermath. What does the book Black Like Me tell us about racial prejudice and intolerance in an era of international terrorism?
- Some critics of Griffin's experiment claimed he could never really experience the extent of problems facing blacks. In what ways might this be true?
- Griffin criticized newspapers for perpetuating prejudices through stereotypes portrayed in news articles. Look up newspapers from 1959 in the library and see how black Americans are portrayed. What terms are used for blacks? How many articles mention blacks? Do they describe personal achievements of blacks or simply problems? Do the papers' editorials support racial segregation?
- How have social conditions and attitudes changed toward black Americans since 1959? In what ways do blacks still experience prejudice in American society?
For More Information
Fremon, David K. The Jim Crow Laws and Racism in American History. Berkeley Heights, NJ: Enslow Publishers, 2000.
Griffin, John Howard. Black Like Me. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1961.
Griffin, John Howard. Scattered Shadows: A Memoir of Blindness and Vision. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2004.
Irons, Peter. Jim Crow's Children: The Broken Promise of the Brown Decision. New York: Viking, 2002.
Davis, Ronald L. F. "Resisting Jim Crow: An In-Depth Essay." The History of Jim Crow. http://www.jimcrowhistory.org/history/resisting2.htm (accessed on December 12, 2006).
Negro: black person of African heritage.
Skid row derelict: A homeless person living in an impoverished part of town.
Separate facilities: Separate public facilities, such as rest rooms, that different races were required by local law to use.
Coon: Shortened reference to raccoon.
Y: YMCA facility near where Griffin was staying.
Menial: Undignified or lowly.
This is the cream: Top jobs available to educated blacks.
Pigmentation: Skin coloration.
Contrive: Make up; develop through a scheme.
Dirty linen: Local social injustices that bring embarrassment when exposed to the world.
Monochrome: Single color.
Persecuted: Punished for having a certain belief.
de jure law: Written law.
Cynicism: Distrust of human behavior.