- 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
Professor Harper overcame his predicament, and so, after a long ordeal, did Griffin. By May 1956, when Nuni was published, he was not only fully recovered from the malaria but perhaps more content than he had ever been. Nuni was receiving favorable reviews, translations of his first novel were selling well in Europe, and he was close to finishing a third. He was the happy husband of a loving wife and the doting father of two small children. He seemed finally to have achieved a measure of peace.
All that changed one morning the following January. As with everything in his life, he described it in his daily journal:
“Wednesday, four days ago, I was walking to the house for lunch. Redness swirled in front of my eyes. Then I thought I saw the back door, cut in portions, dancing at crazy angles. I stood dumbfounded. Angles continued to dance and there was pain in the eyes and head.
“I stumbled inside, found the telephone. Somehow I got the number dialed. I heard my wife’s voice.
“‘I think … ,’ I began, and then collapsed into weeping.
“‘What is it? What’s happening?’ she asked.
“‘I think I can see.’” He could. By the time Piedy and the family physician reached the farmhouse, he was able to make out forms and colors. He was euphoric. The sight of his two-year-old daughter was “like looking at the sun—blinding me to everything else.”
The strychnine, he was told, had apparently unstopped blocked blood vessels. The flow of blood in turn had unknotted twisted vessels. A month later he wrote to a friend: “We have, on this near-lethal dosage … brought my vision to a plu-perfect 20/15 in each eye. I am overwhelmed by details seen with the utmost clarity—every glass flaw, every pebble.”
The singularity of his recovery brought Griffin national attention and some local gibes. Many in Mansfield had never taken to Griffin’s cosmopolitan background and cultured air, and some suggested that maybe he had never been blind at all. Time, echoing the skeptics, reported in its medicine section that Griffin’s recovery was unprecedented, but his blindness might have been “mainly, if not entirely, hysterical.”
On February 25, 1957, a little more than a month after he regained his sight, the sun broke on Griffin again. The Supreme Court of the United States unanimously struck down the Michigan law banning The Devil Rides Outside. Speaking for the Court, Justice Felix Frankfurter wrote, “The state insists that, by thus quarantining the general reading public against books not too rugged for grown men and women in order to shield juvenile innocence it is exercising its power to promote the general welfare. Surely this is to burn the house to roast the pig.” The decision effectively reversed an 1868 British ruling that for almost a century had remained the principal guide to Anglo-American jurisprudence on censorship and obscenity.
Moral triumphs do not pay bills, however, and the income from his novels was not enough to support Griffin and his growing family. Several months before his sight returned, he had found employment in Fort Worth as a staff writer at Sepia, a black monthly modeled loosely after Life. Griffin fit in easily at the magazine, whose publisher, George Levitan, practiced a policy of equal opportunity long before it became a national slogan.
In the fall of 1959 he began research on a piece about the high suicide rate among Southern blacks. He sent out questionnaires to black professionals, but the few who responded simply returned them blank. The article stalled. He vented his frustration on Adelle Martin, the magazine’s editorial director. Why wouldn’t Negroes trust him? He was on their side. Mrs. Martin, black herself, responded bluntly: Negroes knew that no matter how he tried, he would never understand. The only way he could know what it was like to be a Negro was by being one.
The remark triggered the return of an old, odd thought: If a white man became a Negro in the Deep South, what adjustments would he have to make? A few days later he proposed a series of articles to Levitan. He would dye his skin and travel the South. He wouldn’t change his name or hide his background or education. He would still be John Howard Griffin—author, teacher, musicologist —but with one difference: he would be black.
The publisher warned Griffin of the dangers involved, but he couldn’t hide his enthusiasm. Go ahead, he told Griffin; Sepia would foot the bill. Piedy was less enthusiastic. It sounded dangerous, but if he felt he had to do it, then he should. He would be gone for a month.