John Howard Griffin (1961). Black Like Me.
In 1959, a Texas journalist by the name of John Howard Griffin decided to embark on a scientific research project. By the end of the experiment, he would be a changed man in more ways than one. With the help of a medical doctor and the support of his family, John underwent treatment (with Methzosalen and UV light) that altered the pigment of his skin, until this white man appeared black. He then traveled through the southern states of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia for 6 weeks, experiencing life as a black man. Black Like Me, written by John Howard Griffin and published first in 1961 (it has been republished in eight U.S. printings since) chronicles one white man’s attempts to get inside the lives and minds of black Americans living in the still very segregated south.
Griffin, this book, and his entire experiment have come under harsh criticism from both Whites and Blacks. In spite of this, his experience is quite striking and worthy of consideration.
Griffin describes his response to seeing himself in the mirror as a black man for the first time: “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” (10). He goes on to say, “The completeness of this transformation appalled me…I became two men, the observing one and the one who panicked, who felt Negroid even into the depths of his entrails” (11).
Griffin realized that, while he had heard friends and colleagues talk about the problem, he would not be able to fully experience what they described and understand the plight of the black man from an outsider’s perspective. His goal was, as someone who had lived a comfortable life as a white, middle-class male, to truly experience their circumstances to discover if things were “truly as bad as they seemed.”
The sharp contrast to how Griffin was treated as a white man, as opposed to how he was treated as a black man, in the same places, by the same people was appalling. Griffin recounted chilling tales of terrible prejudice, difficulty, hate, and surprise as even the most menial things (like getting a drink or finding a bathroom) became, at times, day-long events. Griffin began to understand the difficulty in searching for a job, when it required walking through town in search of a bathroom out back to freshen up or find a drink. During his six week experience John tried to acquire the means to support himself, means that are common to all individuals; food and water, restrooms, housing, employment, transportation and social support. Despite his attempts in various locations throughout the south, results seemed consistent despite location.
Food and water were minimal and hard to find. Cafes were available to African Americans, but they were few and often required traveling long distances. Bathrooms were segregated and, again, few and far between. In bleak circumstances John often found help within his black neighbors.
When looking for housing John found additional struggles. Living in boarding houses and sometimes sleeping on a passerby’s floor, standards were subpar. I could see John struggling to endure these circumstances, when just a few days prior he could have stayed at the best hotel as a white man. Again, even in these circumstances, he found solace in the company of his African American peers. They exchanged kind words, lived family lives similar to his own and were willing to share whatever they had with a stranger.
When looking for employment John had very little success. Even with education and experience no one would hire him. Even those willing to pursue higher education were destined to poverty because the system of racism did not consider them appropriate hires. With all his training the only employment he could find was shining shoes, and this was due to a prior connection.
Transportation was a very difficult problem and provided John with many different experiences. I was amazed by the conversations that he had with Caucasian men that picked him up while hitchhiking. He had his life threatened, was asked about his sexual life with his wife and spoken down to. It sounded like most picked him up for entertainment value. John also traveled by bus, where he was often taunted by bus drivers and Caucasian passengers.
One of the reactions he experienced as a black man was what is called ‘the hate stare.’ Griffin first experienced it in a bus station trying to buy a ticket. The white woman behind the counter made it obviously clear that she didn’t want to help him. When he asked about the next bus to Hattiesburg, “She answered rudely and glared at me with such loathing I knew I was receiving what the Negroes call ‘the hate stare.’ It was my first experience with it. It is far more than the look of disapproval one occasionally gets. This was so exaggeratedly hateful I would have been amused if I had not been so surprised.” (50) Another encounter with the ‘hate stare’ involved women leaving church on Sunday morning. Griffin, as a nicely dressed black man walks by the church just as the services ended; “…as the women came through the church doors and saw me, the ‘spiritual bouquets’ changed to hostility. The transformation was grotesque.” (121)
For his time, Griffin’s portrayals of the Black community were incredibly humanizing and dignifying. He depicts the community and camaraderie within the black community and is able to experience life within a culture to which he would otherwise never have had access. He tells stories of remarkable care and consideration for a total stranger like himself from his new black brothers and sisters. He describes one young man who walked with him several miles when Griffin asked directions, and then offered to come back when Griffin was finished with his business to walk him home. At another point, he stayed with another black family and noted their abject poverty, as well as their kindness, goodness, and love for one another, and for others. This family which had little materially to offer invited a stranger from the side of the road in and extended every act of hospitality that was possible, simply because that was the way one should treat another human being. He describes the solidarity on several bus rides, as well as the tension that blacks in the south constantly encounter while traveling, and relates a few of the “inside jokes” and subtle humor that blacks in the south picked up on and shared together.
Another striking aspect of Griffin’s experiment is the experience he went through as he came out of this social experiment. Whites in his Virginia hometown expressed anger and outrage, as many could not fathom why anyone would undertake an experiment to help create equality for other races. Threats were made, effigies were hung in the intersections, and eventually his family was forced to move for fear of safety. It was a brutal demonstration of how deeply seeded racism can be in people, and how dangerous and angry it can quickly become.
Even though this book was written in the early 60’s at the beginning of the Civil Rights movement, and there was hope that things would change, the events happening in the U.S. today point out that we have not changed enough. As an old gentleman in a café said, “It’s a vicious circle, Mr. Griffin, and I don’t know how we’ll get out of it. They put us low, and then blame us for being down there and say that since we are low, we can’t deserve our rights.” (40) The events in Ferguson and New York only highlight how twisted our systems are and how difficult it will be to bring about the change that is needed.
Questions for Reflection and Discussion
- How did you feel about Griffin’s decision to undergo this transformation? Do you agree that the experiment had some design flaws? What are some ways the experiment could have been adjusted to produce a more objective examination?
- If you had hypothesized how this experiment might have gone before you read the book, what would you have predicted?
- What aspects his experience were the most eye opening or insightful for you? What was most unexpected encounter in the book?
- What has changed since the 1960’s? Is the situation for people of color any different?
- Toward the end of the book Griffin is asked, “Your children don’t hate us, do they?” (164) Griffin answers, “Children have to be taught that kind of filth…” How can we work together to ensure our children are not taught to hate?
- Without going to the extremes that John Griffin did, what are some practical actions you can take that this book inspired?
- How can our churches improve and support better race relations?
- How can we as individuals work to change the systems that are prejudicial toward people of color and other ethnicities?
- This book has the tremendous ability to start discussions desperately needed in our time and culture about injustice and oppression, both personal and institutional, which is difficult for an outsider to perceive or believe. Consider reading this book with others and agree to allow for safe, respectful, honest, and thoughtful dialogue and debate as you go along.
- While the nation has made progress in the civil rights discussion, certainly more is needed. Take an analytical look at what systems are still broken in our world, and what issues are within your sphere of influence; whether it’s at your workplace, in your community, or in larger contexts like city or country.
- This book highlights the blind spots were are ignorant to, or ignore. Let this book be a catalyst to ask others from different cultures or backgrounds what blind spots you might personally have. Listening to one another, and respectfully guiding one another, is how we can learn and grow.
Dan Hall, Alicia Lindley, and Susanne R. McCarron, 2014© 2018 CYS
1. Describe the different forms of racism encountered by John Howard Griffin while on his journey through the South.
The purpose of Griffin’s project was to measure the impact of racism in the Southern U.S. in the late 1950s. As Griffin quickly found out, once his skin was black, he was judged differently by nearly everyone he met. In an essay written in 1976, he observes: “no one was judging me by my qualities as a human individual and everyone was judging me by my pigment.” While black, he is at best the subject of prurient interest as whites ask about his sex life; at worst, he is met with looks of suspicion and hatred or ignored as though he does not exist.
Each day, he is reminded of his status when he is not allowed to use white bathrooms and drinking fountains or to enter white cafés. On the bus, whites refuse to sit near him. He even becomes the target of racially motivated violence, being chased, harassed, and threatened with death at various times in the book. Griffin notes that although black people are aware that this racist treatment is not directed at themselves personally, they cannot help but feel it personally, and it burns.
Griffin makes the point that many well-meaning whites consider themselves friends of black people, but do so in a patronizing manner which shows they are prejudiced, too. He emphasizes that black people do not wish to be patronized, but to be given their rights and treated as equals.
Another form of racism Griffin witnesses is present among blacks themselves. As the owner of the YMCA café points out, light-skinned blacks with artificially straightened hair are more likely to be respected or looked upon as leaders than dark-skinned people. One man Griffin encounters, a mixed-race individual named Christophe, looks down upon those with darker skin. He is proud of not being a pure-blooded black person, as he clearly despises his own race. This self-hatred of blacks on the basis of color is even sadder, in some way, than white attitudes, because it shows how African-Americans internalize white racist ideology and turn it on themselves.
A final form of racism that Griffin warns against is black racism toward whites. Although it is understandable that black people are suspicious and resentful toward white people, he maintains that the situation will never improve if blacks sink to the level of racist whites and begin hating white people. Instead, the good and kind-hearted people of both races need to begin communicating openly. The racial divide can only be bridged by goodwill and understanding, never through hatred and anger.
2. How does John Howard Griffin’s diary challenge the stereotype that blacks have lower sexual morality than whites, and how does he show it as hypocritical? How does Griffin explain examples of low morality that he does encounter in the black community?
In the South during the 1950s, a common racial stereotype was that black people had lower moral standards than whites, especially when it came to sex. Throughout his journal, Griffin shows how hypocritical this attitude is. Griffin is shocked when white men approach him and Sterling Williams at the shoeshine stand, asking about sex with black girls. They speak of it in a very casual way, as if they couldn’t possibly offend a black person. In fact, they do offend their black listeners, but the black people, long accustomed to showing a smiling mask toward whites, don’t show they are offended.
Griffin is careful to show that there are people with high and low sexual morality in the black community, just as there are in the white community. For instance, when a black woman shows interest in Griffin, he quotes Sterling Williams as saying, “She ain’t no slut. She’s a widow looking for a mate…the kind that would love to be a preacher’s wife.” As for the examples of free sexuality Griffin witnesses in the New Orleans ghetto, he notes that sex is a kind of escape from the ugly, degraded surroundings and the hopelessness many feel.
While hitching rides through rural Alabama, Griffin finds that many of the men who pick him up are interested in tales of sex. They all assume that a black man would have experience with exotic sex acts that decent whites do not dare to try. Griffin feels degraded by their questions. One man asks whether he’d like to sleep with a white woman; a young man asks to see Griffin’s genitals. Griffin uses this as an opportunity to educate the young man, and his readers, explaining that there is no real difference between black and white sexual attitudes. “Our ministers preach sin and hell just as much as yours. We’ve got the same puritanical background.” If blacks have more illegitimate children, earlier loss of virginity, or more crime, it’s not a result of their race but of their position in society. Deprived of culture and educational opportunities, and condemned to live a life in poverty and despair, a man’s sense of virtue is dulled, Griffin explains.
Also in Alabama, Griffin is picked up by a hunter who asks if Griffin’s wife has ever had sex with a white man. The hunter brags that he rapes women who come to him looking for jobs. He claims that white men do black women a favor by raping them, because it improves the black race by getting white blood into their kids. Griffin points out the irony: “Newspapers play up as sensational every attempt by a Negro to rape woman. Yet this white rape of Negro women is apparently a different matter.” He concludes that it’s a “grotesque hypocrisy” that leads whites to talk about the importance of racial purity, while white men routinely rape black women and call it a favor.
In New Orleans near the end of his journey, Griffin sees a notice posted by a white man looking for sex with underage girls. The fact that white men feel themselves free to perform sex acts with fourteen-year-old black girls, while a black man is advised not to even look at a white woman in a movie poster, is a clear double standard, and shows the hypocrisy of whites who pose as morally superior to blacks.
3. While Griffin encounters a frightening amount of evil on his journey through the South, he also sees evidence of the good in people. Cite examples of goodwill and compassion Griffin experiences. What hope do they give Griffin that the racial divide may be bridged?
A major theme of Griffin’s work is the essential goodwill of the majority of people. Ignorance and hatred, he emphasizes in the last lines of his journal, cannot be allowed to “drag down the innocent and right-thinking masses of human beings.” As he points out in a conversation with a young man about sexual morality among blacks, “we’re all born blank.” Children have to be taught to hate; people have to be crushed before they lose sight of virtue. And even in the ghettos and swamps of the South, and amid the environment of racism, Griffin encounters loving and compassionate and courageous people.
The first example of such a person is Sterling Williams. The kind, patient shoeshine man knows that Griffin is really a white man in disguise, but he readily accepts Griffin and teaches him what he knows. After a short period of time, he speaks to Griffin as if he were black, too. Williams’s kindness was essential to Griffin’s entrance into the black world. Griffin is touched, too, by the way Williams and his partner Joe provide a daily lunch for the wino who begs on the streets. This small act of kindness, he reveals, elevates the shoeshiners to the status of noblemen.
Other blacks show great kindness to Griffin, including a young student who walks miles out of his way to show Griffin to a movie house; Bill Williams, a man who befriends Griffin on the bus and advises him about how to behave in Mississippi; a black sawmill worker who gives Griffin a place to sleep on the floor of his shack in the swamps; and an elderly preacher in Mobile, Alabama, who shares his home and even his bed with Griffin. The preacher emphasizes a message of love, rather than hatred, toward whites. “When we stop loving them, that’s when they win,” the old man says. Griffin takes this as a thesis for his own work. Love, and not hatred, is the answer to bridging the racial divide.
Griffin also encounters kind, caring white people. In Alabama, he gets a ride from a young white construction worker who he is amazed to find almost completely free of prejudice. He notes how much this man loves his young son, and wonders at how the love of family can extend to the rest of a person’s life. Then, too, Griffin admires crusaders like P. D. East, who bravely speak out against racism although it costs them their reputations. When East comes to pick Griffin up on the streets of Hattiesburg, Mississippi, he shakes Griffin’s hand in full view of everyone around—even though Griffin is a black man.
After his articles are published in Sepia and the news of his project becomes public, Griffin notes that he receives 6,000 letters, and only nine of these are abusive. The rest are all from supporters at home and overseas. It is Griffin’s hope that these “men of goodwill” on both sides of the racial divide will step forward and begin communicating in order to heal their broken society.
4. On visiting Atlanta and studying the black community there, Griffin feels for the first time that there is hope for the dismal racial relations in the South. Outline the factors cited by Griffin that have made it possible for Atlanta to make strides against segregation and discrimination against black people.
Having shown readers a rather hopeless picture of the racist South, Griffin describes the strides made in the city of Atlanta. He identifies four main reasons for Atlanta’s progressiveness on civil rights: unity among the black leaders; a white mayor sympathetic to black rights; a progressive newspaper that is outspoken against injustices; and finally, a Negro Voters’ League, which has helped protect black voting rights.
The first factor—unity of purpose among the city’s leaders—is key in the creation of economic and political power. The African-American section of Atlanta consists of black-owned banks, businesses, and industries as well as six black colleges, including Morehouse (an all-male college), Spelman (an all-female college), and Atlanta University. Black business leaders, educators, and spiritual leaders band together to work in the best interest of the black community. For instance, when banks refuse to lend money to black homebuyers, community leaders pool together a large sum of money to give as loans. Seeing that they cannot win the battle, the banks begin lending to blacks. “There is no ‘big Me’ and ‘little you,’” Griffin is told by T. M. Alexander, one of the Atlanta business leaders. “We must pool all of our resources, material and mental, to gain the respect that will enable all of us to walk the streets with the dignity of American citizens.”
The second major factor is a sympathetic political leadership. Atlanta would not have a black mayor until 1973, but white mayor William B. Hartsfield is sympathetic to the black cause, and his administration helps enable change to happen.
Third, the city has a newspaper, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, headed by journalist Ralph McGill, that is unafraid to stand up for right and justice. Griffin notes that most newspapers in the South are filled with racist propaganda from the White Citizens’ Councils and Klans. However, there are a handful of courageous publishers—among them McGill and Griffin’s friend P. D. East in Mississippi—who make a stand for racial justice. These news publishers don’t play it safe and print what people want to read; they risk their fortunes and reputations for the sake of the truth.
Voting rights are a fourth important factor in Atlanta’s progress, Griffin notes. Black business, professional, and civic leaders are all politically active, and in 1949, black Democrats and Republicans united to form the Atlanta Negro Voters League, helping blacks gain a voice in their government. In 1955, a black candidate was elected to the city school board.
While Griffin knows there is a long road ahead before equality can finally be achieved, he looks to Atlanta as a beacon of hope for a peaceful, nonviolent path to change for the major cities of America.
5. Griffin spent six weeks in the South disguised as a black man in order to learn about the black experience of racism. However, as he points out in his Preface, critics of his experiment may claim that his story is false; it’s really “the white man’s experience as a Negro in the South, not the Negro’s.” How would you respond to this? Could a white man ever come close to understanding racial discrimination through an experiment such as Griffin’s? Was it foolish of him to even attempt it?
Griffin acknowledges in the Preface that readers may be skeptical of his findings or offended that a white man would think he understands what it is like to be black after a few short weeks in dark makeup.
On the one hand, their criticisms may be valid. After all, Griffin was able at any time to rub the black paint off his face and return to being white. He knew that the situation was only temporary. He was not truly indigent, as were many of the people he encountered, and he didn’t really need any of the jobs he was rejected for; he had a career and money to finance his journey. On the other hand, there is ample evidence within the narrative that Griffin did not view himself simply as a white man with artificially darkened skin. In the weeks he spent disguised as a black man, he gradually internalized that identity, to the point where he no longer felt comfortable, for example, riding in the car with a white man. He may really have been a white man inside, but after being treated as black during the time he was in disguise, he experienced a total identity shift.
Some might argue that Griffin’s experience with racism was somehow different simply because he was not raised as a black person. They could claim that black people become so accustomed to the degradation that it doesn’t bother them as it would bother a white person to be treated the same way. However, as Griffin might argue, this seems like a racist claim. Clearly, the black people Griffin encounters are bothered and affected by racism. They may become inured to it to a certain degree, but it is human nature to resent oppression and mistreatment. It would be the same for a Jew living in Nazi Germany or a Mexican living anywhere in the U.S. at the time of his experiment; discrimination hurts everyone, regardless of color.
Of course it is true that black Americans living their whole lives in the South were much better qualified than Griffin to talk about racial discrimination. However, at that time, white audiences became uncomfortable, defensive, and even angry when they heard a black person speak about racism. They were more willing to hear the same message from a white man. In the end, then, it was not a foolish experiment, since it allowed Griffin to act as a mouthpiece for those whose complaints were not being heard. He often said, however, “I don’t stand up here and represent myself as a spokesman for black people,” emphasizing that his was just one man’s story.