Black Like Me
John Howard Griffin, who was born in Texas in 1920, was a remarkable character. During World War Two he joined the French underground, helping smuggle Jewish children out of Germany to England. In 1945 a bomb explosion left him blind, but he still managed to write a bestselling novel before miraculously recovering his sight a decade later. Having experienced discrimination when blind and witnessed Nazi anti-Semitism, he became acutely aware of racial discrimination in the segregated Deep South of the United States, and was determined to publicly expose its injustice. 'Black men told me that the only way a white man could hope to understand anything about his reality was to wake up some morning in a black man's skin,' wrote Griffin. So that is what he did. In November 1959, Griffin dyed his skin black with pigment-darkening medication, and spent six weeks travelling and working in Louisiana, Mississippi, Georgia and South Carolina as an African American.
He started out as a shoe shine boy in New Orleans, and was immediately struck by the casual inhumanity of his white customers, who were completely taken in by his disguise. 'When they paid me, they looked as though I were a stone or a post,' he recalled, 'they looked and saw nothing.' Griffin suffered the everyday indignities of segregation, walking miles to find anywhere that a black man was permitted to go to the toilet or sit down for a cup of coffee. He experienced not just verbal racist abuse and the threat of physical violence, but the 'hate stare' when he walked past white men and women:
‘I learned within a very few hours that no one was judging me by my qualities as a human individual and everyone was judging me by my pigment. They could not see me or any other black man as a human individual because they buried us under the garbage of their stereotyped view of us. They saw us as 'different' from themselves in fundamental ways: we were irresponsible; we were different in our sexual morals; we were intellectually limited; we had a God-given sense of rhythm; we were lazy and happy-go-lucky; we loved watermelon and fried chicken.’
Griffin wrote about his experiences in a series of articles for the black monthly magazine Sepia, and also in a book, Black Like Me. Today we might consider that a white man speaking on behalf of African Americans is unnecessary, condescending or possibly unethical – surely black people are able to speak for themselves. But at the time white Americans would scarcely listen to black voices campaigning against segregation, which is why Sepia had agreed to publish Griffin. It was a smart move: his revelations had enormous impact. He gained widespread media attention for the cause of racial equality, and became a prominent civil rights spokesman, working with Martin Luther King and lecturing on college campuses across the country. Yet there was a cost. He and his family received death threats from white supremacists and were hounded out of the United States. They returned a year later, but the Ku Klux Klan eventually caught up with Griffin, beating him with chains and leaving him for dead on a Mississippi back road. He was lucky to survive and resolutely continued his political activism.
Today Black Like Me remains a standard text on high school and college syllabuses across America. At its heart is Griffin's resounding message about the value of empathy: 'If only we could put ourselves in the shoes of others to see how we would react, then we might become aware of the injustice of discrimination and the tragic inhumanity of every kind of prejudice.'