John Howard Griffin was a white native Texan novelist and journalist with a strange idea that he couldn't get out of his head. What if a white man became a black man for six weeks and traveled through Deep South states such as Georgia, Alabama, Louisiana, and Mississippi?
His strange idea eventually led him to be hired to write a series of articles for Sepia
, a popular monthly African-American magazine. Griffin's next step was to strike a dangerous arrangement with a New Orleans dermatologist, who agreed to help him create his "disguise." The doctor gave Griffin treatments of oral pigmentation medication followed by repeated exposure to ultraviolet ray treatments. As a finishing touch, the author shaved his head, transforming himself (in his own words) into "a fierce, bald, very dark Negro."
About John Howard Griffin
Born in Dallas, Texas to musician parents, John Howard Griffin trained to become a classical musicologist, studying in Paris with the likes of Nadia Boulanger. When the Nazis invaded France, 19-year-old Griffin went to work as a medic for the French Resistance, helping them evacuate Austrian Jews from Vichy France to safety. When the U.S. entered the War, he joined the Army and became a decorated and wounded combat veteran.
For over ten years, as a result of a combat head injury, Griffin wound up going completely blind. In 1957, he regained his full sight in a miraculous recovery. During his years of blindness, John Howard Griffin wrote several novels. In 1959, he decided to write "Black Like Me."
"Black Like Me"
In a six-week period during 1959, John Howard Griffin traveled through four Deep South states as a white man, meeting friendly people in towns along the way. He then came back through the same places as a black man and received a completely different reaction from the same people that he had met as a white man. During his "social experiment", for Griffin, it was the difficulty and small indignities of daily life as a black person that hurt worse than the few incidents of overt racism that he experience. It was the simple acts of finding a drink of water, a public restroom, or a place to stay that became the ultimate indignity for him.
In 1961, Griffin expanded his magazine story into a bestselling book, Black Like Me. It was his book that created a nationwide controversy, resulting in a feature in Time
magazine and interviews with television's Mike Wallace and Dave Garroway.
After his story became a nationwide sensation, he was subject to harsh criticism and protests that eventually ended up in the Texas town where he lived with his family. Griffin was burned in effigy there. This caused him to pull up stakes and move to Mexico with his family.
To this day, Griffin's book and magazine articles read as powerful documents that once served to take the country's temperature and provide a new empathy far beyond the black community.
John Howard Griffin died in Fort Worth, Texas in 1980.
In 1968 author Grace Halsell decided to repeat Griffin's experiment after reading his book. She contacted Griffin and he encouraged her to do it, arguing that it would be important to have the perspective of a black female's experience to complement his own work.
Halsell pigmented her skin dark in order to pass as a black woman living in Harlem and Mississippi. She wrote about her experience in the best-selling book Soul Sister
Halsell later lived among the Navajo, hiring herself out as a Navajo maid to a Southern California family. She wrote about this in her 1973 book Bessie Yellowhair
. Some of her other experiences included living for months on a junk in Hong Kong, traveling 2000 miles by tug down the Amazon River, and residing for a year in the Ecuadorian town of Vilacabamba (famous as the alleged town of very old people).
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