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Black Like Me!

Updated on March 19, 2015

John Howard Griffin

John Howard Giffin

In the 1950s a white man, John Howard Griffin, wrote a book, "Black Like Me", about his experiences taking a drug that turned his skin, a dark chocolate color, which allowed him the opportunity, to experience what it was like, to live as a black man in the racially segregated south. He did this, because, he thought it was impossible for a white man or any white person, to really understand, what it like for blacks living in the segregated south unless you were black.

Griffin wrote in the opening chapter of his book " "What is it like to experience discrimination based on skin color, something over which one has no control?" No white man could, he reasoned, truly understand what it was like to be black, because black people would never tell the truth to outsiders. "The only way I could see to bridge the gap between us was to become a Negro," . "I decided I would do this."

Griffin's book details his experiences traveling "as a black man" by bus and occasionally hitch hiking through, Louisiana, Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi, which were probably the worst states in the union for racial violence against blacks and black men in particular during that time.

Griffin's Racial Attitudes Change

Griffin was born on June 16, 1920, in Dallas, Texas. and grew up in the segregated south. He shared the common white supremacist racist attitudes toward blacks as the majority of white southerners did. But a turning point in his life and his racial attitudes came, when as a teenager, he went to France to attend school. To his amazement, he found that the French, didn't hold the white-supremacist racial attitudes toward blacks like many white southerners did. This experience caused Griffin to question his own racist attitudes towards blacks. This eventually lead him to commit himself to the cause of ending racial segregation and gaining racial equality for black people.

How Griffin Was Able To Pass As A "Negro"?

Some people may wonder how Griffin could pass for a black man ( a negro in those days) if he had "white features". Many "black" people have "white" features.

Griffin was able to "pass" himself off as a black man by taking large doses of the anti-vitiligo drug Methoxsalen, under the supervision of a dermatologist. He spent fifteen hours a day under an ultraviolet lamp to help darken his skin. Griffin wouldn't look in the mirror to see how he looked until the treatment was completed.

Griffin See's He's Reflection In The Mirror

When Griffin finally saw his reflection in a mirror he said "The transformation was total and shocking. I had expected to see myself disguised, but this was something else. I was imprisoned in the flesh of an utter stranger, an unsympathetic one with whom I felt no kinship. . . . I looked into the mirror and saw reflected nothing of the white John Griffin's past. No, the reflections led back to Africa, back to the shanty and the ghetto, back to the fruitless struggles against the mark of blackness. . . . I had tampered with the mystery of existence and I had lost the sense of my own being. This is what devastated me. The Griffin that was had become invisible."

The "Black Man" On The Left Is John Howard Griffin

Griffin Passes For A Black Man

Griffin's skin was so dark many whites, probably just saw him as a "mongrel" black man with some white ancestry. In the segregated, Jim Crow south, the "one drop rule" applied. It didn't matter how white your features or your skin, if you were seen as black, you were black. Griffin's very dark skin definitely qualified him for that designation.

Blacks accepted Griffin as a black man. Blacks were used to seeing and accepting "black" people of all shades, colors, hair textures and facial features, because of racial mixing and the "one drop rule"

Griffin's Black Friend Didn't Recognize Him

One of Griffin's friends, a black shoe shiner, Sterling William, didn't recognize Griffin after his transformation. As Griffin was getting his shoes shined by William he said “Is there something familiar about these shoes?” William: “Yeah, I been shining some for a white man” Griffin “A fellow named Griffin?” William: “Yeah. Do you know him?” Griffin: “I am him.”

Many white's who knew Griffin didn't recognize him.

Griffin's Journey Through The South As A Black Man

Griffin's journey as a "black" man took him hitchhiking through the south, hitching rides with blacks, but, mostly with whites. He found that he was treated in a friendly manner by most whites, but also found that many whites had a perverse interest, in his sexual prowess as a black man. They assumed he was out to screw as many women as he could." and were also interested in the size of his penis.

One man asked Griffin, if his wife "ever had sex with a white man," saying "We figure we're doing you people a favor to get some white blood in your kids." Griffin said " This grotesque hypocrisy slapped me as it does all Negroes."

Griffin Finds It's Hard To Get A Job As A Black man

Griffin arrived in Mobile, Alabama and found that it was hard for a black man to get a job. He applied for a job at a factory but was told: "We're getting you people weeded out from the better jobs at this plan. Pretty soon we'll have it so the only jobs you can get here are the ones no white man would have."

Any black person who grew up in the 1950s Jim Crow south wouldn't be surprise at anything Griffin experienced, because that was basically an everyday reality for them

Griffin Finds Out How Whites Judge Blacks

Griffin found out first hand how blacks were judged by many white southerners, saying, "the criterion is nothing but the color of skin. My experience proved that, whites judged me by no other quality. My skin was dark. That was sufficient reason for them to deny me those rights and freedoms without which life loses its significance and becomes a matter of little more than animal survival."

Griffin experiences as a "black man' were so depressing, he "decided to try to pass back into white society" He said "I was once more a first-class citizen."

"Black Like Me" Griffin Received Death Threats When His Book Was Published

Griffin's book, "Black Like Me" was published in 1962, sold ten millions copies and was. translated into 14 languages. A film of same name was made in 1964, starring James Whitmore as Griffin.

When the black magazine, Sepia, published excerpts from his book, Griffin received so many death threats against himself and his family. Griffin had to move his family to Mexico for his and their protection. Someone even hung, Griffin, in effigy in his hometown of Dallas Texas. But after "Black Like Me" was published. Griffin bravely went around the country lecturing about his experiences and against racial injustice and segregation..

James Whitmore As Griffin

Griffins's Death

The rumor was that Griffin died as a result of the skin darkening treatment he did, but this was false. Griffin died September 1980 at age 60 from diabetes-related complications.

One Of The Great Unsung Heroes Of The Civil Rights Movement!

I have to admire any person, whose willing to find out the hard way, what it was really like to be a black person during that time. Griffin actually put his life as great risk, doing what he did, because, black men's lives in the Jim Crow south, were seen as extremely expendable.

Griffin wrote in the preface of his book "The Negro. The South. These are details," "The real story is the universal story one of men who destroy the souls of other men. It is the story of the persecuted, the defrauded, the feared and detested."

Griffin was one of the great unsung heroes of the civil rights movement and the fight for the racially equality of African Americans.

Long live your in peace brother!

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Celebrating The 50th Anniversary Of "Black Like Me"


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    • profile image

      big E 

      2 years ago

      Jeff Kephart is a white man who is living as a black man currently.

      if you google his name and click on view all you can find his picture!

    • profile image


      4 years ago

      Wow he spent 15 hours a day under a lamp. When did he eat and sleep. Lol!

    • profile image


      4 years ago

      I see a lot of value in a white man going undercover as a black man in today's society. You are going to hate me for saying this but I noticed that black employees work much harder for black bosses than white bosses. Now it would be unfair to fire a boss for being white so why not have some white bosses go undercover as black men to get more productivity out of black employees. I think it would really help the white community to have some undercover black skinned men. They could be used to help get black voters. Black skin could also help with the ladies in many cases. Black skin can also reduce your chances of getting robbed tremendously. Because the white man is looked as soft.

      I sincerely hope and pray that the white man realizes how black skin can help him moving forward. I hope that there is an easy and affordable way to change your skin color. Black skin would be more valuable to the white community than lebron james was to cleveland. More valuable to the white community than kurt warner was to the rams. Black skin is a hidden treasure znd i am gonna try to convince whitey with my limited resources that black skin can be his hero.

    • vveasey profile imageAUTHOR

      VC L Veasey 

      4 years ago from Detroit,MI

      Yeah many people would like to think that. It was such an ugly time in the history of this country, it makes them uncomfortable to be associated with it or to think that people they identify with, held or may still hold those views

    • RonElFran profile image

      Ronald E Franklin 

      4 years ago from Mechanicsburg, PA

      Great hub. I remember reading "Black Like Me" decades ago, but hadn't even thought about it in years. Polls show that many Americans believe that the time when people were judged on the color of their skin has passed. I think a modern day John Howard Griffin would find otherwise.

    • MartieCoetser profile image

      Martie Coetser 

      4 years ago from South Africa

      I can but only imagine myself in a black skin, and therefor i will never know what it is really like to be black. The audacity and feeling of superiority of whites are absolutely ridiculous. Thought-provoking hub!

    • vveasey profile imageAUTHOR

      VC L Veasey 

      4 years ago from Detroit,MI

      Eric Thanks for stepping out of the ordinary. Griffin deserves it!

    • vveasey profile imageAUTHOR

      VC L Veasey 

      4 years ago from Detroit,MI

      Say Yes To Life

      Yes he did and I don't think he gets enough recognition for what he did.

      I never hear his name or his praises sang doing civil rights celebrations do you? He should even be an important part the celebration of black history month.

    • Say Yes To Life profile image

      Yoleen Lucas 

      4 years ago from Big Island of Hawaii

      Griffin did a very courageous thing. Thank you for bringing this book to light once again!

    • Ericdierker profile image

      Eric Dierker 

      4 years ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

      I think you are right so I just did a rare thing for me -- I shared it all over. Thanks again.

    • vveasey profile imageAUTHOR

      VC L Veasey 

      4 years ago from Detroit,MI

      Yeah Eric for us "old guys" that's true, but for the youngsters of today?

      I don't think so!

    • Ericdierker profile image

      Eric Dierker 

      4 years ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

      Much thumbs up and kudos for a great piece. I only disagree that he was unsung. He was a hero to me and many of my friends. Required reading in high school in early '70's. Thank you for bringing him to life here.


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