The Man Who Changed His Skin

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On a sunny November day in 1959, a tall, brown-haired Texan entered the home of a New Orleans friend. Five days later an unemployed, bald black man walked out. The name of both was John Howard Griffin, and the journey he began that Louisiana evening was to take him to a country farther than any he had ever been in, one bordered only by the shade of its citizens’ skin.

For four weeks Griffin, his skin chemically darkened, posed as an itinerant black. He wandered the South, hitchhiking, seeking work, and talking and listening to people black and white. His journal of those weeks became a series of magazine articles and then a book, Black Like Me. In passionate first person prose it brought home to millions of American whites the misery and injustice daily endured by American blacks. It opened eyes and seized hearts and changed minds.

It also changed lives, including Griffin’s own. Abandoning a promising literary career, he devoted the next eight years to the civil rights movement. He saw authorship of a single book eclipse all his other achievements. He became for the rest of his life the man who had turned himself black. But Black Like Me was only the most prominent event in a life filled with drama and transformation. By the time of his death, in 1980, Griffin had left behind the sloughed skins of a dozen careers and identities. Born to a middleclass Dallas family, he was schooled in France, where he joined in the soirées of European aesthetes and aristocrats. He served in the French Resistance and soldiered in the South Pacific, where he lived for a year as an aborigine islander. He converted to Catholicism, and he thirsted for a life of prayer and chastity even while he wrote a novel banned in Detroit for its sexual explicitness. He lost his sight, lived for ten years as a blind man, and then miraculously recovered his vision. He was a musical scholar, a religious intellectual, a working journalist, a livestock breeder, a professional photographer, a social activist, and a controversial novelist.

And, of course, for a few weeks in 1959 he was a black man.

Griffin was a product of two disparate cultures, Texan and French, and was never totally at home in either. He was born on June 16, 1920, the second of four children. His father was a religious, hardworking wholesale grocery salesman utterly devoted to his refined, delicate wife. Years later Griffin recalled waking each morning to the sound of his mother practicing the piano sonatas of Mozart and Schubert and Bach preludes and fugues.

 

When Griffin was fifteen, he came upon a magazine ad for the Lycée Descartes, a boarding school in France, and wrote to the headmaster begging for admission. He had no money, he confessed, but he would do anything to pay his way, even scrub floors. Several weeks later a reply came back: If the young man wanted to learn so badly, he was by all means welcome. Griffin presented the letter to his flabbergasted parents; they responded predictably, but he was already a person of considerable will, and he was soon aboard an ocean liner.

Griffin was a gifted student. He graduated from the lycée, then stayed in France to study medicine and the humanities. He spent his seventeenth summer at the country home of a wealthy French family. Evenings he played Ravel, Debussy, and Schubert on the phonograph or lay in bed reading Balzac, Gide, and Rabelais.

By the spring of 1939 his future seemed bright. Having decided on a career in psychiatry, he began work after his first year of medical school as an “extern” at the Tours insane asylum. A student of religious music, he conducted experiments using Gregorian chants as therapy for patients considered beyond cure. Then, in September, Germany invaded Poland. France declared war, and virtually all the medical staff at the asylum was immediately conscripted. Griffin was placed in charge of the hospital’s female wing, responsible, along with eight nuns, for 120 patients. He was just nineteen years old.

Griffin left behind the sloughed skins of a dozen identities, from medieval scholar to South Sea islander.

It was a harrowing time. He was often dragged from his bed to treat wounded soldiers trucked from the front. German and Austrian Jews began trickling into the city; officially enemy aliens, many did not speak French and most lacked safe-conduct papers. As the French fell back, the young American volunteered to help the refugees. He strapped them into straitjackets and smuggled them in an asylum ambulance to the port of St.-Nazaire for passage to England. Their faces haunted him: he never forgot the encounter with racism.

After the French surrender in 1940, Griffin himself fled. He returned to the United States and joined the Army Air Corps. Leaving for what would become a three-year stint in the Pacific, he stuffed his duffel bag full of books by MoliÀre and Racine and scores by Mozart and Beethoven. His initial assignments were light. For a while he served as a disc jockey, broadcasting classical concerts to front-line troops. Bored, he volunteered for a post on a remote island, to set up liaison in the event of an American occupation.

 

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.

By 1949 Griffin was earning a respectable income as a breeder of prize livestock, but his yeoman days were already numbered. That spring he met the New York drama critic John Mason Brown, who was in Texas on a lecture tour. Brown suggested that Griffin try his hand at writing; he certainly talked like a writer. Griffin, intrigued, asked how he should start. You get some paper and write, Brown curtly replied. Griffin did just that, converting a room in the barn behind his parents’ house into an office. It was a cramped space, “about three long steps each way,” but it suited Griffin’s anchoritic temperament. It also suited his subject, a novel about a young American man studying Gregorian chant in a French monastery. Neglecting his hogs, Griffin sometimes worked all night, dictating in French on a wire recorder and later transcribing his dictation in English on his mother’s ancient Underwood. In seven weeks he had completed a first draft and launched a new career for himself.

He had also precipitated a series of events that eventually changed the law of the land. He called the book The Devil Rides Outside, borrowing from a French proverb: “The devil rides outside the monastery walls.” The six hundred-page novel is a study of the struggle between faith and temptation, a raw, sprawling work that seems to have sprouted like a mushroom in the garden of Texas letters. In 1981 the novelist Larry McMurtry wrote of it as “a strange, strong book whose verbal energy . . . still seems remarkable after almost 30 years. In the mostly all-too-healthy and sunlit world of Texas fiction, the book remains an anomaly, dark, feverish, introverted, claustrophobic, tortured.”

Issued by a fledgling Fort Worth publisher, The Devil Rides Outside received surprising attention for a first novel by an unknown. Reviews were mixed. “Most of the novel’s sound and fury is bound up with the medieval notion that sex is the domain of Satan,” complained the Atlantic Monthly, but the noted literary critic Maxwell Geismar was impressed. He called the book one of the best novels of the decade and dubbed its author “a Texas Balzac.”

The Legion for Decent Literature, a Catholic organization, succeeded in getting The Devil Rides Outside banned in Detroit on the grounds that it was unfit for children and adolescents. While little in the book would shock a contemporary reader, the novel was daring for the fifties. It contains a pair of passages that describe in exactly the same language sexual climax and spiritual rapture.

Postwar censorship laws were a welter of local and state statutes, many of which, despite the historic 1934 circuit court ruling on Ulysses, still banned whole works based on isolated passages. In the spring of 1954 the book’s paperback publisher, Pocket Books, arranged to challenge the Detroit ban. A bookstore manager was arrested for selling a copy to a police inspector; the court convicted, the bookseller appealed, and Butler v. Michigan began a two-and-a-half-year march to the Supreme Court.

Despite the praise and attention, the fall of 1952 found the thirty-two-year-old Griffin utterly miserable. After six years of delay FranÇoise had bitterly broken their engagement. In his grief he received solace from an unexpected source, Piedy Holland, now a seventeen-year-old high school senior. Despite Griffin’s disability and the gap in their ages, the two found themselves increasingly drawn to each other. After a genteel courtship of several months, he proposed to Piedy at midnight mass on Christmas Eve. She happily accepted, and the two were married the following June after Griffin received dispensation from the Vatican for his Pacific marriage. They moved into a cottage behind the Hoilands’ house, and Griffin went to work on a second novel.

Totally blind, he turned to animal husbandry to earn a living —and wrote a novel that was banned in Detroit.

That fall Griffin noticed a growing numbness in his fingers. The doctor diagnosed malaria, a souvenir of his days in the tropics. The numbness progressed until by December he was not only blind but confined to a wheelchair, effectively paralyzed except in his left arm. He began taking minute doses of strychnine as a stimulant, but the prognosis was uncertain. To compound his troubles, he had been diagnosed as diabetic.

Despite these afflictions, he continued to labor on Nuni, a Robinson Crusoe tale of a middle-aged English professor struggling for survival on an island of savages. In his journal he wrote: “I am aware perhaps that I am putting the problems of my life into the lap of Professor Harper and I am desperate for him to solve them. I am stripping him of everything that men generally consider necessary to a man’s ability to function at the human level.”

 

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.

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.”

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.

 

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.

After Merton’s death, in 1968, the Merton Legacy Trust asked Griffin to write the monk’s official biography. He accepted the task gladly. Recurrent foot tumors and bone deterioration from diabetes kept him largely confined to a wheelchair, and he welcomed a return to purely literary labor. He spent the next nine years working on the book. As he had done before, he sought to understand his subject by slipping inside his skin. For nearly three years he spent two weeks out of every month at Merton’s Kentucky hermitage, faithfully observing the monastic routine, a Spartan schedule of prayer and work beginning each morning at three. He discovered a tranquillity there that made these among the happiest days of his life.

By the end of four weeks, he ached with hurt and humiliation. The adventure had turned into an ordeal.

By 1973 Griffin was too ravaged by diabetes to work away from home. As his health declined, the work proceeded more and more slowly. He missed his first deadline and then a second. Finally, in 1978, despite Griffin’s pleadings, the Merton Legacy Trust named Michael Mott as Merton’s official biographer. To compound Griffin’s woes, his publisher demanded the return of its substantial advance. The settlement left him virtually bankrupt.

For the last two years of his life, Griffin was tortured by pain and despair. Emotionally he never recovered from the loss of what he thought would be his masterpiece, his contribution to the world’s spiritual literature. Physically he suffered from kidney trouble, lung congestion, impaired circulation, and regular heart attacks, sometimes several a week. A bearish man, he dwindled to a hundred and fifty pounds. In 1979 his left leg was amputated and he was confined to bed.

 

He, Piedy, and their youngest daughter were forced to live on overextended credit cards and Piedy’s secretarial job. When he could, Griffin worked on his thirty years of daily journals, with an eye toward eventual publication. Sometimes he rallied to give interviews or entertain friends or even cook a meal. But more often he had neisither the wind nor the fire to do more than rest and reflect.

He died on September 9, 1980. When a friend asked the cause, Piedy said simply, “Everything.” In the years since his death, a myth has spread that Griffin died from cancer caused by the Oxsoralen he had taken years before. He did not, and the suggestion of martyrdom would have offended him. He was in pain, though, in his last days, and perhaps he often thought of a favorite poem by Langsten Hughes. He had used it for his most famous title:

Rest at pale evening … A tall slim tree … Night coming tenderly Black like me.