- 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
Unable to find a room one evening, Griffin accepted the offer of an elderly black preacher to share a thin mattress in his small, bare room. Night had come to be a time of comfort for Griffin. The strain of the day was over, and he could, like blacks throughout the South, relax in darkness’s enveloping anonymity. The two men lay under quilts, gazing at the ceiling and chatting about Bible miracles. The old man was especially fond of the raising of Lazarus. When it came to prospects for Southern blacks, however, his faith was less secure. He had two sons who had gone north. He hoped they would never return.
From Mobile Griffin hitchhiked to Montgomery. The white men who gave him lifts were friendly, but invariably they turned the conversation to the same topic: “All but two picked me up the way they would pick up a pornographic photograph or book.... Some were shamelessly open, some shamelessly subtle. All showed morbid curiosity about the sexual life of a Negro, and all had, at base, the same stereotyped image of the Negro as an inexhaustible sex-machine with oversized genitals and a vast store of experiences, immensely varied.”
He assumed he would find racism, but he did not expect to find it everywhere, least of all in himself.
The situation might almost have been comic had not Griffin, despite the earthiness of his writing, possessed an almost nineteenth-century sense of modesty. He found the conversations increasingly loathsome and grew increasingly curt, a dangerous tone for a black in rural Alabama. One farmer asked Griffin if he was one of those out-of-state “troublemakers.” Griffin replied that he was just passing through. The farmer patted the shotgun by his knee and gestured at the swampy forest on either side of the road. “You can kill a nigger and toss him into that swamp and no one will ever know what happened to him.” Griffin nodded. “Yes, sir.”
Arriving in Montgomery, Griffin found the atmosphere electric with racial tension. Blacks there seemed less passive and deferential than in other towns. The difference, he decided, was due to the influence of the city’s prominent black minister, Martin Luther King, Jr. But if Montgomery’s blacks seemed less defeated, its whites seemed more actively hostile. Griffin saw the hate stare everywhere. Looking into a washroom mirror, he discovered a change in his own gaze: “My face had lost animation. In repose, it had taken on the strained, disconsolate expression that is written on the countenance of so many Southern Negroes. My mind had become the same way, dozing empty for long periods.”
The strain of Griffin’s appropriated identity was taking its toll. He began having nightmares. Then he stopped taking the Oxsoralen pills, and his skin began daily turning lighter. His hair grew to a heavy fuzz. He decided to see if he could cross the border back into whiteness. He scrubbed off the vegetable dye, donned a dark shirt to stand off against his lightening skin, and headed for the city’s white section. He strolled into a segregated restaurant and ordered a meal. “I ate the white meal, drank the white water, received the white smiles and wondered how it all could be. What sense could a man make of it?”
He returned to the black section and discovered that blacks had a subtle but definite hate stare of their own. He reapplied the dye and found himself once again accepted by one race, spurned by the other. He began zigzagging back and forth across Montgomery, shifting skins like a chameleon, deliberately testing the limits of his disguise. It was, he sadly concluded, impenetrable. He gave up and boarded the bus for Atlanta, the last station in his tracing of the black cross.
Atlanta was a surprise for Griffin. Leaving Montgomery, he had given up hope for the lot of Southern blacks, but Georgia’s capital changed his mind. The city, he found, had made “great strides.” He professed to see hope for the South in Atlanta, but his optimism sounds forced. Despite thoughtful interviews with black and white civic leaders and a tour of black colleges, Griffin’s picture of Atlanta is overwhelmed by the shadows of New Orleans, Mississippi, and Alabama.
Nearly three decades have gone by since Griffin made his journey through the South, but Black Like Me’s power to move and outrage remains undiminished. Still in print, it has sold more than twelve million copies and been translated into fourteen languages. Most recently it was published in South Africa. Part of its enduring appeal comes from what seems the very transparency of the author’s imposture.
It is hard to imagine a person worse suited than Griffin to pass for black. A cultural epicure who had spent his adolescence in France and lived a blind, sheltered existence for the previous decade, Griffin had remarkably little in common with most Southern whites, let alone with blacks. In the book his relations with blacks are cordial but never intimate. He practically shudders every time his ears are assaulted by jazz or the blues. Griffin was able to change his color, but not his heritage.