In 1959, John Howard Griffin, a middle-aged white man, decided to pose as a black man in the Deep South of the United States. What Griffin found shocked America.
Born in 1920, the society he grew up in believed blacks were inferior, and so did Griffin. Yet one day, Griffin’s granddad caught him using a racial slur. He slapped his grandson and said, “they’re people like us.”
At 15, Griffin attended a French boarding school. He was pleased to see there were black students. But his ingrained racism was hard to shake. He admits he was appalled to eat at the same table as them.
Griffin joined the army during World War 2 and was sent to the Solomon Islands. There, he studied tribal languages, but he still considered himself to be superior to the local people.
Griffin had a change of heart after being blinded during an air raid. He wrote, “The blind can only see the heart and intelligence of a man. Not if they are black or white.”
Later in life, Griffin fell sick and was temporarily paralyzed. He recovered and learned to walk again. Inexplicably, his sight returned, but he didn’t like what he saw.
“Whites Only” signs blocking black people from restaurants, public restrooms, and drinking fountains were commonplace across the South. Attempting to bridge the gap between the races, he decided to experience the South from a black person’s point of view.
Friends told him he was crazy. They warned him he would get killed. Undeterred, Griffin spent hours under sunlamps, took drugs, and used stain to darken his skin. After shaving his head to hide his Caucasian hair, Griffin was ready to go out into the world as a black man. Or, as his dermatologist put it, “Now you go into oblivion.”
Whites treated him like a disease. Strangers threatened him. Employers rejected him. He was called the N-word countless times. Griffin felt completely alienated. The constant and undisguised hatred made him sick.
One day, some black people refused to give up their seats to white women on a bus. A fight broke out. It was the last straw for Griffin. He rushed to a restroom and scrubbed away enough of his disguise to pass for white again.
Griffin would later record his experiences in the book Black Like Me. It was a runaway success. The book held a mirror up to America. And the reflection was an ugly one. Griffin was saying the same things black people had been saying for years, but white people had refused to hear.