- 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
Two days later Griffin flew to New Orleans. He arranged to stay at the house of a friend, and the next morning he explained his project to a sympathetic dermatologist. The physician prescribed Oxsoralen, a drug usually used to treat vitiligo, a condition that causes milky patches on the skin. The process would take a couple of months. Griffin explained there wasn’t time, so the physician suggested a higher dosage coupled with exposure to a sunlamp; the drug worked through reaction to ultraviolet light. There was some chance of liver damage, but as long as Griffin was monitored through frequent blood tests, he was probably safe.
For four days Griffin lay in his room under a sunlamp, his eyes protected by cotton pads. The Oxsoralen produced lassitude and nausea and didn’t entirely work; by the evening of the fourth day his skin was dark but mottled. Determined to see the project through, he touched up the light patches with vegetable dye and then shaved his head. The whole process took hours. Finally he was done.
“Turning off all the lights, I went into the bathroom and closed the door. I stood in the darkness before the mirror, my hand on the light switch. I forced myself to flick it on.
“In the flood of light against white tile, the face and shoulders of a stranger—a fierce, bald, very dark Negro—glared at me from the glass. He in no way resembled me.
“The transformation was total and shocking. I had expected to see myself disguised, but this was something else. I was imprisoned in the flesh of an utter stranger, an unsympathetic one with whom I felt no kinship. All traces of the John Griffin I had been were wiped from existence.”
Toting a pair of I duffel bags, Griffin stepped out of the house and walked to the corner to catch a streetcar to downtown New Orleans. Trembling, he bought a ticket and moved down the aisle to take a seat in the back. No one gave him a glance. After a few moments he sighed with relief; he had passed the first test of his new identity.
He stayed the night in a shabby hotel, and the next morning he made a confidant of a street-corner shoeshine boy. The “boy,” a grayhaired World War I veteran named Sterling Williams, cackled with delight at Griffin’s charade. He agreed to let the writer work at his stand for a few days. Then he pointed at the giveaway brown hair on Griffin’s hands. Griffin grabbed a razor from his duffel and scurried for the nearest lavatory. In his haste he almost entered a whites’ washroom, forgetting he was black even as he rushed to eliminate the last sign of his whiteness.
He had long wondered: “If a white man became a Negro in the Deep South, what adjustments would he have to make?”
Griffin worked as a shoeshine boy for several days, learning when to smile, when to laugh, when to shrug, and when to be silent. One of his earliest lessons was that the friendliest customers were those looking for black women. “When they want to sin, they’re very democratic,” his mentor observed. After gaining some confidence, Griffin began searching for a regular job, applying for clerical work at local businesses. The responses were polite but consistent. After three days he had failed to obtain even an interview. At the end of each day he plodded back to the shine stand, and as Williams dolloped out a supper of raccoon stew, Griffin told the old man what he already knew: nobody would hire a black man for anything but manual labor.
After a week in New Orleans, Griffin decided to travel to Mississippi, where, despite massive evidence collected by the FBI, a grand jury had recently refused to return indictments in a race lynching. New Orleans had proved outwardly affable, but as he bought a ticket at the Greyhound station, Griffin had his first encounter with the “hate stare,” a cold, irrational gaze long familiar to blacks that struck Griffin like a blow in the face. It was on the bus ride that he first experienced the petty tyranny regularly visited on Southern blacks. Pulling into a small town for a rest stop, the driver let out the white passengers but ordered the blacks to stay in their seats. They grumbled and objected but complied. Griffin saw that one of the unexpected requirements of blackness was an impressive ability to hold one’s urine.
He stayed in Mississippi only a few days. Overwhelmed by the oppressive poverty and climate of violence, he returned to New Orleans and then took a bus along the Gulf to Biloxi. From Biloxi he hitchhiked to Mobile, traveling beside miles of white, sandy beaches forbidden to blacks. In Mobile he again sought work and also spent much of his time seeking out the things he had once taken for granted: “a place to eat, or somewhere to find a drink of water, a rest room, somewhere to wash my hands.” He had no better luck with jobs there than in New Orleans. “No use trying down here,” one plant foreman told him. “We’re gradually getting you people weeded out.... We’re going to do our damndest to drive every one of you out of the state.”