- Historic Sites
The Man Who Changed His Skin
Thirty years ago John Howard Griffin, a white Texan, became an itinerant Southern black for four weeks. His account of the experience galvanized the nation.
February 1989 | Volume 40, Issue 1
He lived on Nuni, as the natives called it, for a year. His charge was not only to learn the local tongue but to gain the islanders’ trust. To do so, he became one of them: fishing with the men, chewing betel nut, observing tribal customs and ceremonies, and even taking a wife. “They were one of the few truly primitive tribes left in the world,” he later wrote, “in a land where there was no sense of time or goal.” But life there was far from innocent. Behind the apparent languor Griffin discovered a harsh existence where children sometimes perished in brutal rites of initiation. When his year was up, he was ready to leave.
He was reassigned to Morotai, a tiny spot of land in the Moluccas close to several islands held by the Japanese. Manning the radar tent there alone one night, he was caught in an air raid and artillery barrage. He described the scene in his unpublished autobiography: “A shell shrieked downward and I threw myself to the ground.... The shell exploded nearby and shrapnel whizzed unseen around me. Relief and exhaustion overwhelmed my senses.... I wanted to lie still and rest, to ignore some gigantic urgency in the atmosphere. A new wave of mortars, ack-ack explosions and shell screeches swept toward me. I hurried to my feet to run ahead of it.” He didn’t make it; knocked unconscious, he was at first taken for dead by medics and later rescued by an alert burial crew.
Griffin regained consciousness, apparently suffering from nothing worse than a concussion, and except for sensitivity to light and difficulty reading his mail, he quickly recovered. Sick of the service and fearful of a prolonged hospital stay, he kept his vision problems to himself. Back in the United States he was given a last physical, including a cursory eye exam. Unable to make out the results on his discharge papers, he asked another soldier to read them to him. He was staggered to learn that his vision was 20/ 200. He was legally blind.
He soon realized that his blindness would be more than legal. He was losing his sight completely. Specialists were unable to help; he had apparently suffered some kind of brain damage. They outfitted him with thick, dark spectacles, but they weren’t strong enough. Wanting to hide his affliction, he took to reading with the help of a small, easily hidden magnifying glass.
Medicine was obviously no longer a viable profession, so in 1946 Griffin returned to France to pursue a career as a musicologist. He spent the summer at the conservatory at Fontainebleau. Each day his eyes were a little worse, but still he told no one: “I felt that losing my sight was a thing I had to do alone.”
In the fall he left for Paris to visit an old school friend who had become a monk in a Dominican convent. At first he found the monastery dismal, reeking of “the odors of cabbages and onions and mop water,” but distaste gradually turned to respect, and respect to reverence. “The poverty of my unlighted cell warmed with delight,” he wrote. “I had imagined that men seeking union with God more or less languished in a state of mystical trauma, soaring above the baser aspects of their own daily living. But here men lived in intimacy with the things of the earth —cold, fasting, labor.... I saw they were men like me. I lived with them, saw them bleary-eyed at dawn, smelled them sweating after labors, and yet sanctity lay there within them.”
It was to be five years before Griffin left the Episcopal Church for the Catholic, but by the time he departed the Couvent St. Jacques he was already very much converted. Moreover, he had discovered a part of himself that yearned for the devotional solitude of a monastic life. In the years to come he would often retreat to the sanctuary of monastery walls.
From Paris Griffin went to the Abbey of Solesmes, to research medieval church music. When he returned to the United States in the spring of 1947, he was twenty-six and totally blind. He was also engaged. During his year in France he had fallen in love with a woman several years his senior named FranÇoise Longuet.
The two faced obvious obstacles; the first was Griffin’s physical helplessness. FranÇoise decided to remain in France for the time being. Back in Texas Griffin and his parents escaped the city’s noise and hazardous traffic by moving to a farm outside Mansfield, a small town near Fort Worth. To earn an income, Griffin turned from musicology to animal husbandry. After some tutoring by teachers at Texas A&M, he purchased four Ohio Improved Chester sows and began breeding them. He also began tutoring local children in advanced piano. One of his first students was the thirteen-year-old daughter of a local insurance agent, Clyde Holland. Elizabeth Holland—“Piedy” to friends and family—was already a talented pianist. She proved an apt pupil and was soon a regular visitor to the Griffin farm.