The Man Who Changed His Skin

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On a sunny November day in 1959, a tall, brown-haired Texan entered the home of a New Orleans friend. Five days later an unemployed, bald black man walked out. The name of both was John Howard Griffin, and the journey he began that Louisiana evening was to take him to a country farther than any he had ever been in, one bordered only by the shade of its citizens’ skin.

For four weeks Griffin, his skin chemically darkened, posed as an itinerant black. He wandered the South, hitchhiking, seeking work, and talking and listening to people black and white. His journal of those weeks became a series of magazine articles and then a book, Black Like Me. In passionate first person prose it brought home to millions of American whites the misery and injustice daily endured by American blacks. It opened eyes and seized hearts and changed minds.

It also changed lives, including Griffin’s own. Abandoning a promising literary career, he devoted the next eight years to the civil rights movement. He saw authorship of a single book eclipse all his other achievements. He became for the rest of his life the man who had turned himself black. But Black Like Me was only the most prominent event in a life filled with drama and transformation. By the time of his death, in 1980, Griffin had left behind the sloughed skins of a dozen careers and identities. Born to a middleclass Dallas family, he was schooled in France, where he joined in the soirées of European aesthetes and aristocrats. He served in the French Resistance and soldiered in the South Pacific, where he lived for a year as an aborigine islander. He converted to Catholicism, and he thirsted for a life of prayer and chastity even while he wrote a novel banned in Detroit for its sexual explicitness. He lost his sight, lived for ten years as a blind man, and then miraculously recovered his vision. He was a musical scholar, a religious intellectual, a working journalist, a livestock breeder, a professional photographer, a social activist, and a controversial novelist.

And, of course, for a few weeks in 1959 he was a black man.

Griffin was a product of two disparate cultures, Texan and French, and was never totally at home in either. He was born on June 16, 1920, the second of four children. His father was a religious, hardworking wholesale grocery salesman utterly devoted to his refined, delicate wife. Years later Griffin recalled waking each morning to the sound of his mother practicing the piano sonatas of Mozart and Schubert and Bach preludes and fugues.

 

When Griffin was fifteen, he came upon a magazine ad for the Lycée Descartes, a boarding school in France, and wrote to the headmaster begging for admission. He had no money, he confessed, but he would do anything to pay his way, even scrub floors. Several weeks later a reply came back: If the young man wanted to learn so badly, he was by all means welcome. Griffin presented the letter to his flabbergasted parents; they responded predictably, but he was already a person of considerable will, and he was soon aboard an ocean liner.

Griffin was a gifted student. He graduated from the lycée, then stayed in France to study medicine and the humanities. He spent his seventeenth summer at the country home of a wealthy French family. Evenings he played Ravel, Debussy, and Schubert on the phonograph or lay in bed reading Balzac, Gide, and Rabelais.

By the spring of 1939 his future seemed bright. Having decided on a career in psychiatry, he began work after his first year of medical school as an “extern” at the Tours insane asylum. A student of religious music, he conducted experiments using Gregorian chants as therapy for patients considered beyond cure. Then, in September, Germany invaded Poland. France declared war, and virtually all the medical staff at the asylum was immediately conscripted. Griffin was placed in charge of the hospital’s female wing, responsible, along with eight nuns, for 120 patients. He was just nineteen years old.

Griffin left behind the sloughed skins of a dozen identities, from medieval scholar to South Sea islander.

It was a harrowing time. He was often dragged from his bed to treat wounded soldiers trucked from the front. German and Austrian Jews began trickling into the city; officially enemy aliens, many did not speak French and most lacked safe-conduct papers. As the French fell back, the young American volunteered to help the refugees. He strapped them into straitjackets and smuggled them in an asylum ambulance to the port of St.-Nazaire for passage to England. Their faces haunted him: he never forgot the encounter with racism.

After the French surrender in 1940, Griffin himself fled. He returned to the United States and joined the Army Air Corps. Leaving for what would become a three-year stint in the Pacific, he stuffed his duffel bag full of books by MoliÀre and Racine and scores by Mozart and Beethoven. His initial assignments were light. For a while he served as a disc jockey, broadcasting classical concerts to front-line troops. Bored, he volunteered for a post on a remote island, to set up liaison in the event of an American occupation.