Black Like Me – John Howard Griffin
In the Deep South of the 1950s, journalist John Howard Griffin decided to cross the color line. Using medication that darkened his skin to deep brown, he exchanged his privileged life as a Southern white man for the disenfranchised world of an unemployed black man. His audacious, still chillingly relevant eyewitness history is a work about race and humanity that in this new millennium still has something important to say to every American.
Review: This book is the diary of John Howard Griffin, a journalist who decided to conduct a social experiment about segregation in the American South. In the winter of 1959, John started taking vitiligo pills to turn his skin dark brown. He left upper-class white society to travel through the South as an unemployed black man. What he discovered helped change the way that many Americans viewed race.
Griffin’s diary shows the day-to-day challenges of being a black person in the South. It definitely deepened my understanding of segregation because it includes a lot of information that I don’t remember learning in school. In the diary, John talks about traveling through areas that didn’t have a large black population. He wasn’t allowed to use white facilities, and there weren’t facilities for black people in these areas, so he had to walk miles to find water to drink, bathrooms, or a bench that he was allowed to sit on. White people were also deliberately cruel to him. They wanted to make black people miserable so that the black people would leave the towns and move somewhere else. I knew that the South in the 1950s wasn’t a wonderful place, but it’s shocking how horrible people can be to each other.
Also, it made me sad that a white man had to live through segregation and racism before other white people would take it seriously. During the time that John Howard Griffin was conducting his experiment, there were black activists trying to draw attention to the problems in the South. Many white people refused to listen to the activists. This book was groundbreaking when it was published because it was one of the first times that a white person had written extensively about the experiences of black people. John Howard Griffin was seen as a “credible source” by many white people who wouldn’t listen to the black activists.
The diary discusses Griffin’s transition back to his regular life. This is one of the most interesting parts of the book because it shows the hatred and mistrust that the races had for each other. After Griffin’s skin turned white again, it was no longer safe for him to be in the black neighborhoods he’d lived in a few days before. When the experiment was made public, he was called a “race traitor” and had to move his family to Mexico to avoid angry white supremacists.
I think everyone in the world should read this book, but I did have two issues with it.
First, since this is a diary, it sometimes references parts of the author’s life that are not explained. I had to do research on the author to know what he was talking about. This wasn’t too bad because Griffin was an interesting person. He struggled with diabetes for most of his life, traveled the world, lived in France for years, worked as a medic in the military, and helped smuggle Jews out of Austria during WWII. An accident left him blind for a while, and when he got his sight back, he became a photographer. Some of these things are referenced in the book, but they’re not explained in detail.
A slightly bigger issue is how Griffin writes about himself in the book. He says he’s not a spokesperson for any race, but that’s exactly how some of his statements come across. This especially bothers me when he writes about himself like he was part of the black race. He wasn’t black. He was a white guy with dark skin. There’s a difference. (In my mind, at least.) He experienced many of the horrors of segregation, but he didn’t spend a lifetime as a black man in the segregated South, so it bothers me when he writes about himself like he was a black man.
Those are minor issues. This book was eye-opening for me, and more people need to read it. Even though it was first published in the 1960s, it’s still relevant.