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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
Which makes it all the harder to see how he pulled it off. Naturally he fooled whites; whites didn’t look at blacks. But how did he dupe blacks? Surely somebody should have seen through such a thin disguise. No one did. His transformation was skin-deep, but neither whites nor blacks ever looked deeper. As readers we are in on the secret. Griffin’s voice—courtly, refined, educated—is so evident throughout the book that we are amazed at the blindness of bus drivers and shopkeepers and all the others. We hear him secretly wail, “I’m just like you,” at each new indignity or abuse, and we cannot believe that no one else hears him.
It is on this level of moral protest that Black Like Me is best known and most celebrated, as a work of civil rights advocacy and a tract on man’s inhumanity to man. But also it was one of the first works of a new kind of journalism—what was called in the sixties the New Journalism—with its personal, participatory, novelistic approach. In fact, the book is arguably the genre’s first masterpiece, even though Griffin was really less a journalist than a personal essayist. Judged as reporting, Black Like Me is an imperfect work. There is too much of the author, too little of others; too much earnest discussion of issues and too little personal observation and encounter. Assuming they had Griffin’s bullheaded courage, one can imagine other writers—Norman Mailer, Tom Wolfe—rendering the experience with more nuanced insight and elegance of style.
What one cannot imagine is these masters of irony abandoning their strategic distance for the raw, racked emotion that powers Griffin’s prose. Black Like Me is not simply a record of oppression and injustice; it is an account of painful personal discovery. Griffin began his experiment as an adventure. He assumed he would find racism, but he did not expect to find it everywhere, least of all in himself. By the end of his four weeks, he ached with hurt and humiliation. The adventure had turned into an ordeal. In discovering the brutal reality of racism, however, he also discovered compassion for the fierce stranger he had first seen three weeks before, the one with whom he had felt no kinship.
“I switched on the light and looked into a cracked piece of mirror bradded with bent nails to the wall. The bald Negro stared back at me from its mottled sheen. I knew I was in hell. Hell could be no more lonely or helpless....
“I heard my voice, as though it belonged to someone else, hollow in the empty room, detached, say: ‘Nigger, what you standing up there crying for?’
“I saw tears slick on his cheeks in the yellow light.”
The initial installment of Griffin’s series appeared in Sepia in April 1960, two months after the first lunch-counter sit-in and seven months before Kennedy’s election. It was an instant sensation. Griffin went to New York for television interviews with Dave Garroway, Mike Wallace, and other hosts. Letters poured in—six thousand of them, mostly from Southern states, and only nine hostile.
Closer to home, friends and a few townspeople were warmly congratulatory, but most of Mansfield was silent. One night in April an effigy of Griffin—half black, half white, a yellow stripe down its back—was hung next to the downtown traffic light. A few days later a cross was burned in front of the town’s predominantly black elementary school. Anonymous phone calls warned Griffin that “they” were coming to castrate him. Griffin’s father came to the house to keep watch with a shotgun.
For a month the Griffins hid out in the homes of friends; in August he decided to move to Mexico. There he worked on a book version of the Sepia articles. Published in 1961, Black Like Me became an immediate best seller and was soon sold to Hollywood. (The film, a mediocre melodrama starring James Whitmore, was released in 1964.)
Griffin stayed in Mexico for nine peaceful months and began a scholarly history of the Tarascan Indians. Then, in the spring of 1961, anti-American riots erupted near his home in Morelia, and the Griffins were forced to take refuge in a Benedictine monastery. They returned north to Fort Worth.
Soon Griffin was swallowed up in the civil rights movement. He had an authority among whites and a credibility among blacks that made him a persuasive and much sought-after speaker. He lectured, marched, investigated, worked as a mediator, argued against violence, and grieved with the families of those claimed by violence. To the dismay of his literary friends, he shelved his autobiography and two nearly finished novels. What time he had for writing he devoted to essays and articles on racism, culminating with his book The Church and the Black Man, an outspoken criticism of the failure of the Christian churches to act on their creeds.
During this time Griffin met Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk and author of the best-selling The Seven Storey Mountain. The two had much in common. Both were French-educated and Catholic converts: Merton a contemplative with a lively interest in the world outside, Griffin an activist with a yearning for the cloister. Not surprisingly, a close friendship blossomed.