Black Like Me: The Book that Changed Racism in America

The KKK in 1922
The KKK in 1922
James Whitmore Jr.
James Whitmore Jr.
Stokely Carmichael
Stokely Carmichael

Maybe the guy who wrote the book is the big story


In 1959, a white man named John Howard Griffin, hoping to pass for black, darkened his skin and travelled for weeks throughout the Deep South of America, where racial segregation had ruled for decades. Griffin rode the Greyhound bus and hitchhiked, interacting with both white and black people. Reportedly Griffin’s relations with white people were generally unpleasant. Then Griffin wrote a short book about his experiences entitled Black Like Me, published in 1961. The book sold 10 million copies and became a contemporary classic, as well as a book high school teachers had their students read.

Griffin certainly appeared to be the type of man who would try such an “experiment,” because throughout his life he lectured about race relations and social justice. A movie based on the book was released in 1964, and for a time Griffin became a celebrity, though he still had numerous detractors and enemies. For a time, he had to flee with his family to Mexico.

In an article entitled “Crossing the Color Line” featured in the October 2011 issue of Smithsonian, author Studs Terkel was quoted as saying that Griffin “was one of those guys that come along once or twice in a century.”

Let’s explore the history of this extraordinary man:

About the Author

John Howard Griffin was born in 1920 and raised in Fort Worth, Texas. While a teenager, Griffin studied French and literature at the University of Poitiers in France. Then Griffin worked as a medic in the French Resistance, at times helping Jewish children flee to England during the early years of World War Two. Later, Griffin served 39 months in the United States Army Air Corps, along the way studying the cultures of the Solomon Islands in the Pacific.

In 1945, while serving in the United States Air Force, Griffin was wounded by shrapnel in an air raid, leaving him blind. While convalescing, he began to write in a serious way about the experience of being left without sight: “The blind can only see the heart and intelligence of a man, and nothing in these things indicates in the slightest whether a man is white or black.”

Then, for reasons never fully explained, Griffin regained his eyesight in 1957, allowing him to embark on his later “odyssey” throughout the American South, a land rife with racial prejudice and hatred.

Griffin, determined to investigate – up close and personal, if you will - the trials and tribulations of the American Negro, visited a dermatologist who gave him a series of drugs designed to darken his skin. Griffin also spent many hours under a suntan lamp and shaved his head to hide his straight hair. Hearing of Griffin’s plan, a friend told him, “You’ll get yourself killed fooling around down there.”

Through the Jim Crow South

Griffin ventured through the American South, a segregated land of so-called Jim Crow laws, where black people could only go where they were allowed to go, or face violent retaliation, even death by hanging or other gruesome means. Apparently Griffin’s “disguise” fooled white people, because he was treated rudely by them and often called the n-word. In his book, he wrote, “That word leaps out with electric clarity. You always hear it, and always it stings.”

Griffin took a bus to Hattiesburg, Mississippi, where a lynching had recently taken place. In alleys, people were whispering about it. Griffin felt great alienation and fear, writing in his book: "Hell could be no more lonely or hopeless." At times he hitchhiked, and whites would often give him rides, though these incidences would nearly always end in hateful stares and derisive words.

After this trek, as Griffin sent reports to Sepia magazine, which had bankrolled the project, Time magazine and CBS found out about him and began publicizing his experience. Soon, Griffin began getting death threats and feared a white mob would come and get him any day. This was when he moved with his family to Mexico for a time.

But, while back in the United States during 1964, the Ku Klux Klan caught Griffin on a country road, beat him up and left him for dead.

The Movie

The tagline of the film was: “I changed the color of my skin. Now I know what it feels like to be black.” James Whitmore Jr. played Griffin in the movie of the same name produced in 1964. Whitmore often played earnest middle class guys in movies, television and on stage, so he was a good choice for this difficult role. This searing, gut-wrenching movie is hard to watch; it’s filled with instances of prejudice, violence and racial animosity. It could be said that people are at their worse when expressing hate. At the very least, the movie seems an accurate version of Griffin’s book.

Afterword

John Howard Griffin died of heart failure at 60 in 1980. As one-of-a-kind as Griffin seemed to be, was his journey and resultant book worth the effort? Black-power advocate Stokely Carmichael said Black Like Me was “an excellent book – for whites.” This appears an understandable viewpoint, as people can never truly understand the experiences of others. Nevertheless, perhaps it could be said the book helped change the way America viewed itself, for soon thereafter the United States Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. This bill essentially outlawed segregation in the U.S.

As for Griffin himself, did he actually exist? This man had the guts to do what nobody else dared to do. Perhaps society needs many more such folks, white or black.

Please leave a comment.

And buy a copy of the book!

More by this Author


Comments 30 comments

Gerg profile image

Gerg 5 years ago from California

Kosmo - thanks for filling out the bio of this interesting man. I read this book about 25 years ago and found it pretty compelling. Positive change never seems to happen fast enough and it does take people with courage and guts to push it along. Great hub!


Kosmo profile image

Kosmo 5 years ago from California Author

Thanks for the comment, Gerg. I also think this is a fascinating story of human determination and courage. Later!


mikeq107 5 years ago

Kosmo :0)

Great read...my wife is Latino and I,m from Ireland..never grew up with Racism and never could really understand why people hate what they don't understand.

Mike :0)


Kosmo profile image

Kosmo 5 years ago from California Author

Thanks for the comment, mikeq107. Racism is still a problem in the U.S., especially in the South; nevertheless, "Black Like Me" had a positive impact. Later!


Millionaire Tips profile image

Millionaire Tips 5 years ago from USA

First of all, I would like to thank you for the advice you wrote in your profile. It is very much appreciated. I didn't know to write answers to comments in the comment section. I normally sent a message if I wanted to answer something. I would imagine that many people wouldn't come back to read the comments. But I can see that other people may find the answer useful. I've heard of the book, but I haven't read it. I think I will. Thanks for the reminder.


Kosmo profile image

Kosmo 5 years ago from California Author

You're welcome for the tips, Millionaire Tips. With a name like that, next time you need to give the tips. Later!


carol3san profile image

carol3san 5 years ago from Hollywood Florida

I heard of his book but never read it. Always thought it was very unsusal for a white man to assume the idenity of a black man. (unless he was hiding from the law or something). I believe his book did some good in America, but of it enraged the haters, and brought the worse out in them.


Kosmo profile image

Kosmo 5 years ago from California Author

You're right, carol3san, I think the most unusual aspect of this scenario is that Griffin took the identity of a black man and then travelled throughout the Jim Crow South. Was he crazy? Did he actually exist? Yes, he did exist, and he may have been crazy, but I'm glad he did it. Thanks for the comment. Later!


Brian 4 years ago

Kosmo,

I am a white man that has been studying race for 6 years and would love nothing more than to spend the rest of my life as a black man. I think being a black man would be a fun and exciting experiment. Being black in 2012 would have a lot of perks. Women love black men. Black people would see me as a brother and not just a whiite man. I also noticed people are less likely to mess with you if you are black. This applies to all colors.

I live in an areea that is about 80%white and 20% black. This is the perfect area to be black. Whenever the police pull some body over I always look to see what color the driver is. Guess what? they usually pull over white people! Black skin could do a lot of good things for me. I feel like it would be good for my social life. Black skin is also a good source of protection. You are less likely to get robbed and things like that. The white man still has a lot of enemies from those days. Black skin could be the shield he needs.

I went to a tanning booth and asked them how dark they could spray tan me and they said no darker than hispanic. I was not haopy. I do not understand why anybody would not want to be a black man. The black man is looked at as the alpha male. You will be loved by the black community. Women will look at you as a sex object. You wouldn't have to watch every little thing you say and be considered a racist just for being born. I am as serious as a heart attack I would like to be a black man. Maybe I will talk to a dermatologist and see if they can do anything fro me.


Kosmo profile image

Kosmo 4 years ago from California Author

Thanks for the very interesting story, Brian. I suppose it would be fun to be black for awhile, though being black in the American South in the early 1960s would not have been fun, I'll bet. Anyway, thanks for stopping by. Later!


Brian 4 years ago

Kosmo,

Thank you for your esponse. The thing is the media always focuses on one side of racism. They don't show how black skin could protect a white man in prison, in da hood even from other whites as blacks today have more protection. I am not complaining I just think that there are some whites out there that could use that same protection. Many whites are not street smart, They are not confrontational and I think black skin would really help the white man in today's world but the media does not expose that.

If I was in control of the media I would push what I call the race change movement. The 40 year old virgin. Plot Steve Carrell unsuccessful with women dyes his skin black and the ladies flock to him. Coach Carter- An inner city white basketball coach can not connect with his team so he dyes his skin black and gets better results.

Napoleon Dynamite- A nerdy white outcast transforms into a black man and becomes hip. I would show the white community that black skin would be a good for them and how it would help them. Black skin is very good for protection don't think its not. I see right through the lies. The media wants to make whitey feel bad for slavery, make him look feminim but at the same time make him feel priveledged so that he does not dye his skin black. This plan has been working. I even coukld make a CD to promote this movement.

1. Darkin up Darkin up

2. Black skin "will be there to protect the white man"-Michael Jackson

3. "In my head" I see pigmentation all over the white man. -Jason Derulo

4. Does getting a race change ever cross the white mans mind- Brian McKnight

5. Black skin is all the white man needs- Maroon 5

6. White skin is poison- Bel biv devo

7. I beleive that black skin is the answer- blessid union of souls

If the white man did what Mr. Griffin did today he would not have to watch what he said as much he would not have to deal with the bogus race card. That is the truth.


Showtime 4 years ago

I heard about this. I wonder if anybody else has tried this. You never know any black man in the world could be a white man disguised as a black man. I heard in a movie a white man passed as a black man so he could get into college. Do you know of anymore examples? Besides tropic thunder.


Kosmo profile image

Kosmo 4 years ago from California Author

A white guy tried to pass as a black guy so he could get into college? You gotta love that story. At any rate, this premise could make a good movie. Later!


B-Dawg 4 years ago

kosmo, I am a biracial man half black/white. I definetly would love to see what would happen if this happened today. I think a white man would be surprised at all the Fine women it attracts. I most certainly agree black skin is good for protection. Maybe they could have a T.V. show race swap. That is my take peace.


aparkhurst7 profile image

aparkhurst7 3 years ago from Wilkes Barre, PA West Hartford, CT

I read this about 6 years ago and reading about it now I think I want to read it again.


Kosmo profile image

Kosmo 3 years ago from California Author

Thanks for the comment, aparkhurst7. I read the book many years ago and still remember at least some of it. And, just a few years ago, I saw the movie. Check that out some time - it's definitely a gut-wrenching drama and hard to watch in some places. Later!


big daddy oreo 2 years ago

I wish I knew a dermatologists who could turn me into a black man. I wonder how much it would cost?

I could go undercover as a black man and protect white people from black people who are racist.


realtalk247 profile image

realtalk247 12 months ago

Loved your article. I too read this book a long time ago and admired this man's actions. Often people say minorities are whining or complain for no reason but what this man did was go from observation to "walk in someone else's shoes" to experience life at that time. He understood the effects of living this life as a person of color and all that comes with it from discrimination to assault for no reason other than the color of your skin. What opportunities are available when people are treated in such a manner?

Great book.


Kosmo profile image

Kosmo 12 months ago from California Author

Thanks for the comment, realtalk247. This country needs many more people to take the walk that Griffin did all those years ago. Bye!


big E 11 months ago

If you google Jeff Kephart he is a white man who changed his color to black permanently. He takes melonotan to keep his skin black. He said on a youtube comment he has had no issues with racism. He has lived in Pennsylvania and Daytona Florida as a black man for 4 years.


realtalk247 profile image

realtalk247 11 months ago

Kosmo, b.s. (no problems)..............Please. Anyone and everyone knows minorities have different experiences.


Kosmo profile image

Kosmo 11 months ago from California Author

Hey, big E, lots of people want to be black, and I see no problem with that. Does anybody? Later!


Brian 10 months ago

I think all the white people who don't like Cam Newton need to change their appearance to black to avoid being called racist.


Kosmo profile image

Kosmo 10 months ago from California Author

Brian, the key is this: Nobody has to like anybody.


big E 10 months ago

Do you think the white police secretly wish they could undercover as black with all the racial termoil going on the last few years?


Kosmo profile image

Kosmo 10 months ago from California Author

Racial turmoil was considerably worse back in the 1960s, especially in the South. Nevertheless, these days, if some white guy painted himself black and tried to keep it a secret, his "secret" would last about 30 seconds. There would be photos of him on Facebook and Twitter and he'd become a joke.


Big E 10 months ago

If I went to a dermatologist today do you think they could help me change my skin color to black? I would seriously love to go undercover as a black man atleast for a couple of years to see what it is like. It would be fun.

Who do you think I should go to? A dermatologist, a tanning salon employee I have heard that a custom airbrush can get you Jamacian dark, or a doctor?

I am looking for a safe and affordable way to do it. My eyes are already brown I just need to keep my head shaved. My nose will pass.


Kosmo profile image

Kosmo 10 months ago from California Author

Color is cool! Go for it!


Brian 9 months ago

Bios3training on youtube temporarily changed his appearance to black in august of 2013. He did it to help his muscles look bigger in muscle competetions. He has a video he did called new workout where he looked legit black. He has a red jersey on in that video maybe you guys can google and find it.


brian 6 months ago

GOogle Peyton Manning black. It is awesome.

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