Black Like Me
By John Howard Griffin, Don Rutledge
Wings Press Copyright © 2010 The Estate of John Howard Griffin and Elizabeth Griffin-Bonazzi
All rights reserved.
October 28, 1959
For years the idea had haunted me, and that night it returned more insistently than ever.
If a white man became a Negro in the Deep South, what adjustments would he have to make? What is it like to experience discrimination based on skin color, something over which one has no control?
This speculation was sparked again by a report that lay on my desk in the old barn that served as my office. The report mentioned the rise in suicide tendency among Southern Negroes. This did not mean that they killed themselves, but rather that they had reached a stage where they simply no longer cared whether they lived or died.
It was that bad, then, despite the white Southern legislators who insisted that they had a "wonderfully harmonious relationship" with Negroes. I lingered on in my office at my parents' Mansfield, Texas, farm. My wife and children slept in our home five miles away. I sat there, surrounded by the smells of autumn coming through my open window, unable to leave, unable to sleep.
How else except by becoming a Negro could a white man hope to learn the truth? Though we lived side by side throughout the South, communication between the two races had simply ceased to exist. Neither really knew what went on with those of the other race. The Southern Negro will not tell the white man the truth. He long ago learned that if he speaks a truth unpleasing to the white, the white will make life miserable for him.
The only way I could see to bridge the gap between us was to become a Negro. I decided I would do this.
I prepared to walk into a life that appeared suddenly mysterious and frightening. With my decision to become a Negro I realized that I, a specialist in race issues, really knew nothing of the Negro's real problem.
I drove into Fort Worth in the afternoon to discuss the project with my old friend George Levitan. He is the owner of Sepia, an internationally distributed Negro magazine with a format similar to that of Look. A large, middle-aged man, he long ago won my admiration by offering equal job opportunities to members of any race, choosing according to their qualifications and future potentialities. With an on-the-job training program, he has made Sepia a model, edited, printed and distributed from the million-dollar Fort Worth plant.
It was a beautiful autumn day. I drove to his house, arriving there in mid-afternoon. His door was always open, so I walked in and called him.
An affectionate man, he embraced me, offered me coffee and had me take a seat. Through the glass doors of his den I looked out to see a few dead leaves floating on the water of his swimming pool.
He listened, his cheek buried in his fist as I explained the project.
"It's a crazy idea," he said. "You'll get yourself killed fooling around down there." But he could not hide his enthusiasm.
I told him the South's racial situation was a blot on the whole country, and especially reflected against us overseas; and that the best way to find out if we had second-class citizens and what their plight was would be to become one of them.
"But it'll be terrible," he said. "You'll be making yourself the target of the most ignorant rabble in the country. If they ever caught you, they'd be sure to make an example of you." He gazed out the window, his face puffed with concentration.
"But you know - it is a great idea. I can see right now you're going through with it, so what can I do to help?"
"Pay the tab and I'll give Sepia some articles - or let you use some chapters from the book I'll write."
He agreed, but suggested that before I made final plans I discuss it with Mrs. Adelle Jackson, Sepia's editorial director. Both of us have a high regard for this extraordinary woman's opinions. She rose from a secretarial position to become one of the country's distinguished editors.
After leaving Mr. Levitan, I called on her. At first she thought the idea was impossible. "You don't know what you'd be getting into, John," she said. She felt that when my book was published, I would be the butt of resentment from all the hate groups, that they would stop at nothing to discredit me, and that many decent whites would be afraid to show me courtesies when others might be watching. And, too, there are the deeper currents among even well-intentioned Southerners, currents that make the idea of a white man's assuming nonwhite identity a somewhat repulsive step down. And other currents that say, "Don't stir up anything. Let's try to keep things peaceful."
And then I went home and told my wife. After she recovered from her astonishment, she unhesitatingly agreed that if I felt I must do this thing then I must. She offered, as her part of the project, her willingness to lead, with our three children, the unsatisfactory family life of a household deprived of husband and father.
I returned at night to my barn office. Outside my open window, frogs and crickets made the silence more profound. A chill breeze rustled dead leaves in the woods. It carried an odor of fresh-turned dirt, drawing my attention to the fields where the tractor had only a few hours ago stopped plowing the earth. I sensed the radiance of it in the stillness, sensed the earthworms that burrowed back into the depths of the furrows, sensed the animals that wandered in the woods in search of nocturnal rut or food. I felt the beginning loneliness, the terrible dread of what I had decided to do.
Lunched with Mrs. Jackson, Mr. Levitan, and three FBI men from the Dallas office. Though I knew my project was outside their jurisdiction and that they could not support it in any way, I wanted them to know about it in advance. We discussed it in considerable detail. I decided not to change my name or identity. I would merely change my pigmentation and allow people to draw their own conclusions. If asked who I was or what I was doing, I would answer truthfully.
"Do you suppose they'll treat me as John Howard Griffin, regardless of my color - or will they treat me as some nameless Negro, even though I am still the same man?" I asked.
"You're not serious," one of them said. "They're not going to ask you any questions. As soon as they see you, you'll be a Negro and that's all they'll ever want to know about you."
November 1 New Orleans
Arrived by plane as night set in. I checked my bags at the Hotel Monteleone in the French Quarter and began walking.
Strange experience. When I was blind I came here and learned cane-walking in the French Quarter. Now, the most intense excitement filled me as I saw the places I visited while blind. I walked miles, trying to locate everything by sight that I once knew only by smell and sound. The streets were full of sightseers. I wandered among them, entranced by the narrow streets, the iron- grill balconies, the green plants and vines glimpsed in lighted flagstone courtyards. Every view was magical, whether it was a deserted, lamplit street corner or the neon hubbub of Royal Street.
I walked past garish bars where hawkers urged me in to see the "gorgeous girls" do their hip-shaking; and they left the doors open sufficiently to show dim, smoke-blue interiors crossed by long rays of pink spotlights that turned the seminude girls' flesh rose. I strolled on. Jazz blared from the bars. Odors of old stone and Creole cooking and coffee filled the streets.
At Broussard's, I had supper in a superb courtyard under the stars - huîtres variées, green salad, white wine and coffee; the same meal I had there in past years. I saw everything - the lanterns, the trees, the candlelit tables, the little fountain, as though I were looking through a fine camera lens. Surrounded by elegant waiters, elegant people and elegant food, I thought of the other parts of town where I would live in the days to come. Was there a place in New Orleans where a Negro could buy huîtres variées?
At ten I finished dinner and went to telephone an old friend who lives in New Orleans. He insisted I stay at his house, and I was relieved, for I foresaw all sorts of difficulties staying in a hotel while I turned into a Negro.
In the morning I called the medical information service and asked for the names of some prominent dermatologists. They gave me three names. The first one I called gave me an appointment immediately, so I took the streetcar to his office and explained my needs. He had had no experience with such a request, but was willing enough to aid me in my project. After taking my case history, he asked me to wait while he consulted with some of his colleagues by phone as to the best method of darkening my skin.
After some time he stepped back into the room and said they had all agreed we would attempt it with a medication taken orally, followed by exposure to ultraviolet rays. He explained they used it on victims of vitiligo, a disease that causes white spots to appear on the face and body. Until this medication was discovered, the victims of this disease had had to wear pancake make-up when they went outside in public. It could be dangerous to use, however. It usually took from six weeks to three months to darken the skin pigmentation. I told him I could not spare that much time and we decided to try accelerated treatments, with constant blood tests to see how my system tolerated the medication.
I got the prescription filled, returned to the house and took the tablets. Two hours later I exposed my entire body to ultraviolet rays from a sunlamp.
My host remained away from the house most of the time. I told him I was on an assignment that I could not discuss and that he should not be surprised if I simply disappeared without saying good-by. I knew that he had no prejudices, but I nevertheless did not want to involve him in any way, since reprisals might be taken against him by bigots or by his associates, who might resent his role as my host once my story became known. He gave me a key to his house and we agreed to maintain our different schedules without worrying about the usual host-guest relationship.
After supper I took the trolley into town and walked through some of the Negro sections in the South Rampart-Dryades Street sections. They are mostly poor sections with cafés, bars and businesses of all sorts alongside cluttered residences. I searched for an opening, a way to enter the world of the Negro, some contact perhaps. As yet, it was a blank to me. My greatest preoccupation was that moment of transition when I would "pass over." Where and how would I do it? To get from the white world into the Negro world is a complex matter. I looked for the chink in the wall through which I might pass unobserved.
For the past four days, I had spent my time at the doctor's or closed up in my room with cotton pads over my eyes and the sun lamp turned on me. They had made blood tests twice and found no indication of damage to the liver. But the medication produced lassitude and I felt constantly on the verge of nausea.
The doctor, well-disposed, gave me many warnings about the dangers of this project insofar as my contact with Negroes was concerned. Now that he had had time to think, he was beginning to doubt the wisdom of this course, or perhaps he felt strongly his responsibility. In any event, he warned me that I must have some contact in each major city so my family could check on my safety from time to time.
"I believe in the brotherhood of man," he said. "I respect the race. But I can never forget when I was an intern and had to go down on South Rampart Street to patch them up. Three or four would be sitting in a bar or at a friend's house. They were apparently friends one minute and then something would come up and one would get slashed up with a knife. We're willing enough to go all the way for them, but we've got this problem - how can you render the duties of justice to men when you're afraid they'll be so unaware of justice that they may destroy you? - especially since their attitude toward their own race is a destructive one." He said this with real sadness. I told him my contacts indicated that Negroes themselves were aware of this dilemma and they were making strong efforts to unify the race, to condemn among themselves any tactic or any violence or injustice that would reflect against their race as a whole.
"I'm glad to hear that," he said, obviously unconvinced.
He also told me things that Negroes had told him - that the lighter the skin the more trustworthy the Negro. I was astonished to see an intelligent man fall for this cliché, and equally astonished that Negroes would advance it, for in effect it placed the dark Negro in an inferior position and fed the racist idea of judging a man by his color.
When not lying under the lamp, I walked the streets of New Orleans to orient myself. Each day I stopped at a sidewalk shoe-shine stand near the French Market. The shine boy was an elderly man, large, keenly intelligent and a good talker. He had lost a leg during World War I. He showed none of the obsequiousness of the Southern Negro, but was polite and easy to know. (Not that I had any illusions that I knew him, for he was too astute to allow any white man that privilege.) I told him I was a writer, touring the Deep South to study living conditions, civil rights, etc., but I did not tell him I would do this as a Negro. Finally, we exchanged names. He was called Sterling Williams. I decided he might be the contact for my entry into the Negro community.
I had my last visit with the doctor in the morning. The treatment had not worked as rapidly or completely as we had hoped, but I had a dark undercoating of pigment which I could touch up perfectly with stain. We decided I must shave my head, since I had no curl. The dosage was established and the darkness would increase as time passed. From there, I was on my own.
The doctor showed much doubt and perhaps regret that he had ever cooperated with me in this transformation. Again he gave me many firm warnings and told me to get in touch with him any time of the day or night if I got into trouble. As I left his office, he shook my hand and said gravely, "Now you go into oblivion."
A cold spell had hit New Orleans, so that lying under the lamp that day was a comfortable experience. I decided to shave my head that evening and begin my journey.
In the afternoon, my host looked at me with friendly alarm. "I don't know what you're up to," he said, "but I'm worried."
I told him not to be and suggested I would probably leave sometime that night. He said he had a meeting, but would cancel it. I asked him not to. "I don't want you here when I go," I said.
"What are you going to do - be a Puerto Rican or something?" he asked.
"Something like that," I said. "There may be ramifications. I'd rather you didn't know anything about it. I don't want you involved."
He left around five. I fixed myself a bite of supper and drank many cups of coffee, putting off the moment when I would shave my head, grind in the stain and walk out into the New Orleans night as a Negro.
I telephoned home, but no one answered. My nerves simmered with dread. Finally I began to cut my hair and shave my head. It took hours and many razor blades before my pate felt smooth to my hand. The house settled into silence around me. Occasionally, I heard the trolley car rattle past as the night grew late. I applied coat after coat of stain, wiping each coat off. Then I showered to wash off all the excess. I did not look into the mirror until I finished dressing and had packed my duffel bags.
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. Even the senses underwent a change so profound it filled me with distress. I looked into the mirror and saw nothing of the white John Griffin's past. No, the reflections led back to Africa, back to the shanty and the ghetto, back to the fruitless struggles against the mark of blackness. Suddenly, almost with no mental preparation, no advance hint, it became clear and permeated my whole being. My inclination was to fight against it. I had gone too far. I knew now that there is no such thing as a disguised white man, when the black won't rub off. The black man is wholly a Negro, regardless of what he once may have been. I was a newly created Negro who must go out that door and live in a world unfamiliar to me. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Black Like Me by John Howard Griffin, Don Rutledge. Copyright © 2010 The Estate of John Howard Griffin and Elizabeth Griffin-Bonazzi. Excerpted by permission of Wings Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.