John Howard Griffin was a journalist and a specialist on race issues. After publication, he became a leading advocate in the Civil Rights Movement and did much to promote awareness of the racial situations and pass legislature. He was middle aged and living in Mansfield, Texas at the time of publication in 1960. His desire to know if Southern whites were racist against the Negro population of the Deep South, or if they really judged people based on the individual’s personality as they said they prompted him to cross the color line and write Black Like Me.
Since communication between the white and African American races did not exist, neither race really knew what it was like for the other. Due to this, Griffin felt the only way to know the truth was to become a black man and travel through the South. The internationally distributed Negro magazine Sepia in exchange for the right to print excerpts from the finished product financed his trip. After three weeks in the Deep South as a black man John Howard Griffin produced a 188-page journal covering his transition into the black race, his travels and experiences in the South, the shift back into white society, and the reaction of those he knew prior his knowing the book was published and released.
John Howard Griffin began this novel as a white man on October 28, 1959 and became a black man (with the help of a noted dermatologist) on November 7. He entered black society in New Orleans through his contact Sterling, a shoeshine boy that he had met in the days prior to the medication taking full effect. Griffin stayed with Sterling at the shine stand for a few days to become assimilated into the society and to learn more about the attitude and mindset of the common black man.
After one week of trying to find work other than menial labor, he left to travel throughout the Southern states of Mississippi, Alabama, and Texas. November 14, the day he decided to leave, was the day after the Mississippi jury refused to indict or consider the evidence in the Mack Parker kidnap-lynch murder case. He decided to go into the heart of Mississippi, the Southern state most feared by blacks of that time, just to see if it really did have the “wonderful relationship” with their Negroes that they said they did.
What he found in Hattiesburg was tension in the state so apparent and thick that it scared him to death. One of the reasons for this could be attributed to the Parker case decision because the trial took place not far from Hattiesburg. He knew it was a threat to his life if he remained because he was not a true Negro and did not know the proper way to conduct himself in the present situation. Griffin requested that one of his friends help him leave the state as soon as possible. P.D. East, Griffin’s friend, was more than willing to help his friend out of the dangerous situation that he had gotten himself into and back to New Orleans.
From New Orleans, traveled to Biloxi, Mississippi and began hitch hiking toward Mobile, Alabama. Griffin found that men would not pick him up in the day nearly as often as they would at night. One of the reasons being that the darkness of night is a protection of sorts and the white men would let their defenses down. Also, they would not have to be afraid of someone they knew seeing them with a Negro in their car. But the main reason was of the stereotypes many of these men had of Negroes, that they were more sexually active, knew more about sex, had larger genitalia, and fewer morals and therefore would discuss these things with them.
Many of the whites that offered Griffin rides would become angry and let him out when he would not discuss his sex life with them. One man was amazed to find a Negro who spoke intelligently and tried to explain the fallacies behind the stereotypes and what the problem with Negro society was. Many Negroes he encountered on his journey through the Deep South were very kind and opened their hearts and homes to him. One example of this is when Griffin asked an elderly Negro where he might find lodging, the man offered to share his own bed with him.
Another instance was when Griffin was stranded somewhere between Mobile and Montgomery and a black man offered him lodging at his home. The man’s home was a two-room shack that housed six members of his family, but he accepted John into his home and refused any money for the trouble saying, “he’d brought more than he’d taken.” In Montgomery, Alabama, Griffin decided it was time for him to reenter white society, but he also wanted to gain knowledge of the area as a black man. So, he devised the technique of covering an area as a black and then returning the following day as a white.
What he found was, as a black he would receive the “hate stare” from whites and be treated with every courtesy by the black community. As a white, it would be the exact opposite, he would get the “hate stare” from blacks and be treated wonderfully by the same people who despised him the previous day. After a few days of zigzagging across the color line, Griffin decided that he had enough material from his journal to create a book and enough experience as a black man so he reverted permanently into white society.
Crossing over into the white world was unsettling to Griffin, if only because of the way the same people who despised him previously due to his pigmentation treated him. The sudden ability to walk into any establishment and not be refused service was also a shock after having to search for common conveniences days before. After returning to his hometown of Mansfield, Texas Griffin was not widely accepted back into the community he once knew. Many of the residents of the city were racists; therefore they considered him one of the ‘niggers.’
The racists even went as far as to hang Griffin in effigy from the town’s stoplight one morning. This prompted him and his family to leave the area until the situation considerably calmed down. Various television and radio hosts as well as magazine interviewed Griffin and newspapermen after the book was made public. His main objective was to educate the public of the situation in the South and people couldn’t help but hear about it. Whether or not they accepted the information was not up to Griffin, but he did his best to make the knowledge available.
This book relates to American history because it takes the reader into the Deep South before the Civil Rights Movements took hold and shows what it was like to be black. In the Preface, the author states “I could have been a Jew in Germany, a Mexican in a number of states, or a member of any ‘inferior’ group. Only the details would have differed. The story would be the same.” The details he mentioned were he being black and in the South, and the story is of hatred and racism directed toward him and others like him on account of those details.
The account he related showed America and the world that race relations in the South was not the pretty picture it was painted as. Instead, he showed the daily struggle of the blacks to survive. Griffin’s bias is that white Southern Americans of that period were racist toward the African American population. The only thing altered from before he entered New Orleans to after was his appearance. He dyed his skin a very dark brown and shaved his head, his clothing, speech patterns, and references had not changed and every question was answered truthfully.
If people did judge others by their qualities and qualifications, his time in the Deep South should have been fairly uneventful. Instead, there were daily quests to find rest-room facilities, restaurants, stores, and various other ‘conveniences’ that he took advantage of before he crossed the color line. During his stay in New Orleans, blacks were forced to use specific facilities designated for them and they were usually few and far between. Other than the Greyhound station or other public buildings that blacks were allowed to enter, there were no facilities that were at par with the ones the whites had access to.
His now black skin also prevented him from entering any store and purchasing something to drink, instead he would have to find a Negro Cafe. These Cafes were not nearly as numerous as the many places the lowliest white could acquire a drink. The color of his skin also prevented him from gaining anything other than menial labor job, although his qualifications could easily get him any number of positions if he were white. . . . I walked toward Brennan’s, one of New Orleans’ famed restaurants . . . I stopped to study the menu . . . realizing that a few days earlier I could have gone in an ordered anything on the menu. But now, though I was the same person with the same appetite . . . appreciation . . . and wallet, no power on earth could get me inside this place for a meal. I recalled hearing some Negro say, ‘you can live here all your life, but you’ll never get inside one of the great restaurants except as a kitchen boy.'” The above passage represents just one of many instances where he was barred from entering an establishment solely based on his pigmentation.
As stated before, Negroes were not permitted to enter many restaurants, but libraries, museums, concert halls, and other culturally enhancing places were also barred to him even though there was no formal law against them entering. The many stereotypes of blacks being intellectually inferior just made it easier to deny them access because they did not have the mental capacities to appreciate it.
It became apparent to Griffin that because the black population was widely uneducated, they would never be able to succeed in life. One of the things inhibiting their education was the inferior quality of schools and the inability to enter establishments such as libraries and museums. The whites usually knew this and used it to their advantage to keep the black population subordinate.