In 1959, John Howard Griffin, a white reporter for Sepia Magazine, took medication that darkened his skin to a deep brown. Starting in New Orleans, he traveled for a month through Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia, passing as a black man. Black Like Me, whose title comes from the last lines of a poem by Langston Hughes, is the story, almost the diary, of those experiences. His goal, in a society with an almost complete lack of communication between the races, was to see whether white racist stereotypes about black people were true: were they really racially inferior, sexually promiscuous, morally irredeemable? Living among them, as one of them, Griffin intended to find out.
Initially, I was extremely skeptical of the book’s premise. In fact, I remain so. Why do we need a white man to tell us what it’s like to be a black man in the South? Weren’t there plenty of black men with voices of their own, and experiences far deeper, more complex, and more intrinsically valuable than that of a white man entering a culture for a mere few weeks?
As I read, however, I began to understand. 1959 was a year in which no African-American voice could be heard above the racist noise, perhaps especially in the South. Even well-intentioned white liberals were far more likely to ask a white man’s opinion than a black man’s, even about the black man’s own life. Dr. Martin Luther King was just beginning to be a nationally known figure, with the headlines about the Montgomery bus boycott. Despite slavery’s being abolished for a hundred years, no black American, no matter how highly educated, honored, or dignified, could use a white man’s restroom or drink from his water glass. Yes, says Griffin: a black voice would tell this story better. But mine will at least be heard.
Toward the beginning of this book, Griffin moves through his new element with confidence. He has a certain sense of grim glee, as if he were saying, “Would you treat me this way if you knew I was really white?” Later, though, he loses some of his inner sense of whiteness. His reactions — to avoid confrontation with whites, to be courteous to his fellow black people, to stay out of libraries, restaurants, and cafés normally available to him — become more automatic. He begins to feel the sad and terrible burden of poverty without an escape route (as much as he can feel it in three weeks’ time.) And finally, most poignantly, he sees the matter not as a white man or a black man, but more simply: staying with a Mississippi couple with six children, he asks himself how he would feel if a stranger came to his door and told him that from then on, for no reason, his own children would live in poverty, with no education, their future mutilated.
Griffin worked for justice and civil rights issues the rest of his life. Black Like Me is eye-opening and heartbreaking, perhaps particularly the epilogue, which tells some of the details about the civil rights era that get left out when we’re told about this in school. Whose voices are heard today? Who shouts aloud, and who is silenced? Reading this book is one way of improving our hearing.
Rest at pale evening…
A tall slim tree…
Night coming tenderly
Black like me.