I think the first time I heard about John Howard Griffin’s Black Like Me was on twitter. It kind of blows my mind that I reached the ripe old age of 31 before ever hearing of this book.
But now I’ve not only heard of it, I’ve read it.
A friend of mine commented on my Goodreads “review” (I only ever star on Goodreads) that this book sounds like a “racist mess.” I completely understand how she might look at it this way. At times, reading the book, I cringed. But I think Griffin’s intention was good and reading the Afterword, understanding how he put his money where his mouth was after the fact to agitate for Civil Rights, I’m willing to give him a pass.
If you’re not already familiar with Black Like Me, it’s the diary of a white man who, in 1959 decides to take medication that will darken his skin and cross into the Deep South to find out what life was like for a Black man. Before he undergoes the transformation, he writes about why he’s decided to do this:
How else except by becoming a Negro could a white man hope to learn the truth? Though we lived side by side throughout the South, communication between the two races had simply ceased to exist. Neither really knew what went on with those of the other race. The Southern Negro will not tell a white man the truth. He long ago learned that if he speaks a truth unpleasing to the white, the white will make life miserable for him.
Once Griffin had made the decision, he leaves his life and family and crosses into the Deep South as a Black man. And it becomes evident very quickly how different life is on the other side. He very quickly realizes how he has to modify his behaviour, language and clothing in order to stay safe.
As Griffin works his way ever deeper, from Louisiana to Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia, he meets Black men and women with whom he feels a connection, who smile at him and help him when he needs it, like when he’s stranded on a highway and a family lets him stay the night with them, even though there is only room for him on the floor. In talking to those he meets, he comes to see how difficult it is for Black men and women to get a fair shake in a country that is still intent on seeing only the colour of their skin.
It is an indictment of the times that it took a white man standing up to say “hey this is an issue” but if you stop and actually think about it, it’s not so very different today. I watched The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks on HBO the other day and there’s a scene where Oprah asks a white woman a question and the white woman looks at Oprah’s white companion to answer, as if Oprah isn’t standing right there. This is still an issue.
But for all the flaws in the experiment, Griffin’s book remains an interesting historical document. He wrote with respect and empathy about people that he wouldn’t otherwise have gotten to know because of the racist laws of the time. His experience, what he learned, served to change the direction of his life. And that’s worth something.