Black Like Me is a nonfiction book by journalist John Howard Griffin first published in 1961. Griffin was a white native of Dallas, Texas and the book describes his six-week experience travelling on Greyhound buses (occasionally hitchhiking) throughout the racially segregated states of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia passing as a black man. Sepia Magazine financed the project in exchange for the right to print the account first as a series of articles.
Griffin kept a journal of his experiences; the 188-page diary was the genesis of the book.
At the time of the book’s writing in 1959, race relations in America were particularly strained and Griffin aimed to explain the difficulties that black people faced in certain areas. Under the care of a doctor, Griffin artificially darkened his skin to pass as a black man.
In 1964, a film version of Black Like Me starring James Whitmore was produced.
Robert Bonazzi subsequently published the book Man in the Mirror: John Howard Griffin and the Story of Black Like Me.
The title of the book is taken from the last line of the Langston Hughes poem “Dream Variations”.
Account of the Trip
In the autumn of 1959, John Howard Griffin went to a friend’s house in New Orleans, Louisiana. Once there, under the care of a dermatologist, Griffin underwent a regimen of large oral doses of the anti-vitiligo drug methoxsalen, trade name Oxsoralen, and spending up to fifteen hours daily under an ultraviolet lamp.
Don Rutledge traveled with Griffin documenting the experience with photos.
During his trip, Griffin abided by the rule that he would not change his name or alter his identity; if asked who he was or what he was doing, he would tell the truth. In the beginning, he decided to talk as little as possible to ease his transition into the social milieu of southern U.S. blacks. He became accustomed everywhere to the “hate stare” received from whites.
After he disguised himself, many people who knew John Howard Griffin as a white man did not recognize him. A black shoeshine man named Sterling Williams in the French Quarter, a man whom Griffin regarded as a friend, made no connection with his looks now that he was black. Because Griffin wanted assistance in integrating with the black community, he decided to tell Sterling that he was in fact the white man he’d met before. He first hinted that he wore the same unusual shoes as somebody else, but Sterling still did not recognize him until Griffin told him.
In New Orleans, a black counterman at a small restaurant chatted with Griffin about the difficulties of finding a place to go to the bathroom. He turned a question about a Catholic church into a joke about “spending much of your time praying for a place to piss”.
On a bus trip, Griffin began to give his seat to a white woman, but disapproving looks from black passengers stopped him. He thought he had a momentary breakthrough with the woman, but she insulted him and began talking with other white passengers about how impudent the blacks were becoming.
Almost forgotten, in the wake of Griffin’s experiments, were the experiences of journalist Ray Sprigle more than a decade earlier. In 1948, Sprigle disguised himself as a black man and wrote a series of articles under the title, “I Was a Negro in the South for 30 Days,” which was published in many newspapers. The tagline in the Aug. 30, 1948 edition of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette read: “For a month, Ray Sprigle, Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter, roamed the South disguised as a Negro, and accepted as one by whites and Negroes alike. His report on how a white man feels as a Negro in the South is told in this series of articles.”