This year marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of Black Like Me by John Howard Griffin, a white man from Mansfield, Texas, who gained international fame for being black for six weeks. I have been a black man for 35 years, born 15 years after the publication of a book that first made its mark during the civil rights movement.
The hatching of the idea that became Griffin’s claim to fame is well known. In the autumn of 1959, Griffin proposed to George Levitan, the owner of Sepia, an African-American news magazine published in Fort Worth, that he darken his skin and attempt to live as a black man in the Deep South. The experience would be a wellspring for a series of articles that ran in the magazine the following year, and the basis for the 1961 best-seller.
Before I started reading Black Like Me (Wings Press), I knew what my first objection to the book would be. Griffin confronts the charge head-on:
“Some whites will say … this is the white man’s experience as a Negro in the South, not the Negro’s.
“But this is picayunish, and we no longer have time for that. We no longer have time to atomize principles and beg the question. We fill too many gutters while we argue unimportant points and confuse issues.”
Black leaders who fought for civil rights alongside Griffin after his public coming-out vouched for his acuity as an observer of the American scene. But was it really “picayunish” to ask whether his masquerade might yield an untrustworthy experience? There may have been no time for such quibbling in Griffin’s day, but surely everything that’s occurred in the five decades since the first edition of Black Like Me—for starters, that black folks have a much easier time telling their own stories—allows us to ask what Griffin was up to.
Griffin’s work, which is still taught in high schools and colleges, is a product of its time, steeped in a civil rights era when well-meaning whites and blacks worked together to topple Jim Crow segregation. The book made Griffin an immediate expert and spokesman on race, with the support of civil rights stalwarts. The venerable Ebony magazine even put him on its cover. But his pioneering effort also foreshadowed an ongoing debate about the right of white Americans to tell black people’s stories. Griffin often said he spoke for himself, not for African-Americans, who could speak for themselves. Yet, at the time, his experience as a black man was deemed credible by many because he was white.
Griffin’s clandestine journey into the American nightmare begins in New Orleans—a city he had visited often enough as a white man. Now Griffin must take his first tentative step into blackness. His tools of transition are a month’s supply of Oxsoralen (a drug used by sufferers of vitiligo, a skin condition marked by uneven pigmentation and blotches of white skin), a heat lamp, and skin dye.
Beholding his new self in a motel room mirror, Griffin is undone:
“The completeness of this transformation appalled me. It was unlike anything I had imagined. I became two men, the observingone and the one who panicked, who felt Negroid even into the depths of his entrails.
“I felt the beginnings of great loneliness, not because I was a Negro but because the man I had been, the self I knew, was hiddenin the flesh of another.”
This passage reminded me of bell hooks’ idea of the “oppositional gaze,” the act of “Others”—women, people of color, lesbians and gays—claiming the right to look back and challenge dehumanizing stereotypes. Drifting through the streets of a city made newly strange and inhospitable, Griffin learns another lesson: the oppositional gaze is a communal art, most safely practiced in concert with others in the same situation.
Griffin’s Negro world is one of kind strangers, patient tutors and willing co-conspirators. His mission to get inside of the racial divide is supported at every step by blacks who can see he’s up to the right kind of mischief, and who provide him with food, shelter, places to sit, places to sleep and other shortcuts through the Jim Crow maze. Griffin’s path is a harrowing one nonetheless, a journey aided by a community that coheres just enough to save him from several beatings he would otherwise have taken for challenging white supremacy.
When I think of my last trip to New Orleans, I remember how much trouble I had finding a place to piss. This was during Mardi Gras, when the crush of people made it hard to get around. Commerce restricted my ability to navigate; the law restricted Griffin. With the help of an elderly “shoeshine boy”—a World War I veteran and the first person Griffin lets in on his secret—Griffin finds a toilet, skipping the first one he sees and walking to the colored-only facility farther down an alley. It’s an early example of the trap-spotting services blacks perform for Griffin throughout the book.
My first encounter with Black Like Me was in high school, near the time I was in New Orleans. Then, I didn’t know enough about the black experience to appreciate Griffin’s artful infidelity to it. It didn’t occur to me that his perspective could be questioned because, beneath the dye, he was still white. Neither do I remember the book being so funny. Griffin is in his glory exposing the moral hypocrisy and sexual hang-ups of the white people he comes across. During one hazardous stretch hitchhiking through Alabama, Griffin finds himself riding at night with a young white man whose disdain for blacks is rivaled by his curiosity about black male sexuality.
Throughout Black Like Me, I couldn’t help marveling at Griffin’s ability to keep his poise while being forced into close proximity with black bodies in states of undress—in restrooms, motels, and while bunking with an old man he meets on the road. Griffin is profoundly correct in his observation that “Physical modesty in such cramped quarters was impossible, indeed in such a context it would have been ridiculous” while staying with a dirt-poor black family on the way to Montgomery.
But any inability of black folks to keep their shame hidden pales in comparison to the blunt sexual inquiries from the whites Griffin encounters. The young white man who picks up a hitchhiking Griffin declaims archly on the sexual mores of blacks:
“Well, you people don’t seem to have the inhibitions we have. We’re all basically puritans. I understand Negroes do a lot more things—different kinds of sex—than we do. Oh, don’t get me wrong. I admire your attitude, think it’s basically healthier than ours. You don’t get so many damned conflicts. Negroes don’t have much neuroses, do they? I mean you people have a more realistic tradition about sex—you’re not so sheltered from it as we are.”
This is quickly followed by a request that Griffin whip out his member. The white man “had never seen a Negro naked,” Griffin wrote. The truth about black sexuality, as Griffin learns to his horror, is that it is purely a white construct that blacks only sometimes find advantageous to inhabit. Jim Crow hounded the black man’s sexuality into a corner while also keeping it tantalizingly near. This is illustrated in the book by the eerie proximity of the above scene and the breaking news of a Mississippi grand jury’s failure to indict the men who lynched a young black man for allegedly raping a white woman.
Black Like Me opens with the closing couplet of Langston Hughes’ “Dream Variations”:
Rest at pale evening…
A tall slim tree…
Night coming tenderly
Black like me.
As Griffin notes during his nighttime trek through the dark hollows of the South, the sun’s withdrawal can actually make certain kinds of disclosure more possible—not because social mores have relaxed but because the collapse of the visual field make us all more vulnerable, necessitating a kind of codependence. The darkness allows a young white male to admit that he wants to know what a Negro’s penis looks like. Similarly, it allows Griffin, as an educated “Negro,” to counter the man’s stereotypes about the natural condition of black people.
Griffin was blind for 10 years as the result of a war injury. Then one day, after he had married and had a child, his eyesight suddenly returned. Those years in darkness provide a subtext for Black Like Me: daylight separates white and black in their rigidly defined places, while nighttime confronts the color line, as in the scene between Griffin and the young white man. The scene is as if to say that America’s responsibility is not to deny the color line, but to confront it.
In the end, Griffin doesn’t master blackness in six weeks, but he does give the world an early glimpse of what the long-term project of taking whiteness off its pedestal must include. He was a rare visitor to a black world who left behind a shining memento for those of us who make a permanent abode here.
Imani K. Evans is an Austin-based freelance writer. He writes about politics and culture for The Dallas Examiner.