Black Like Me, 50 Years Later
John Howard Griffin gave readers an unflinching view of the Jim Crow South. How has his book held up?

 

Late in 1959, on a sidewalk in New Orleans, a shoe-shine man suffered a sense of déjà vu. He was certain he’d shined these shoes before, and for a man about as tall and broad-shouldered. But that man had been white. This man was brown-skinned. Rag in hand, the shoeshine man said nothing until the hulking man spoke.

“Is there something familiar about these shoes?”

“Yeah, I been shining some for a white man—”

“A fellow named Griffin?”

“Yeah. Do you know him?”

“I am him.”

John Howard Griffin had embarked on a journey unlike any other. Many black authors had written about the hardship of living in the Jim Crow South. A few white writers had argued for integration. But Griffin, a novelist of extraordinary empathy rooted in his Catholic faith, had devised a daring experiment. To comprehend the lives of black people, he had darkened his skin to become black. As the civil rights movement tested various forms of civil disobedience, Griffin began a human odyssey through the South, from New Orleans to Atlanta.

Fifty years ago this month, Griffin published a slim volume about his travels as a “black man.” He expected it to be “an obscure work of interest primarily to sociologists,” but Black Like Me, which told white Americans what they had long refused to believe, sold ten million copies and became a modern classic.

“Black Like Me disabused the idea that minorities were acting out of paranoia,” says Gerald Early, a black scholar at Washington University and editor of Lure and Loathing: Essays on Race, Identity, and the Ambivalence of Assimilation. “There was this idea that black people said certain things about racism, and one rather expected them to say these things. Griffin revealed that what they were saying was true. It took someone from outside coming in to do that. And what he went through gave the book a remarkable sincerity.”

A half century after its publication, Black Like Me retains its raw power. Still assigned in many high schools, it is condensed in online outlines and video reviews on YouTube. But does the book mean the same in the age of Obama as it did in the age of Jim Crow?

“Black Like Me remains important for several reasons,” says Robert Bonazzi, author of Man in the Mirror: John Howard Griffin and the Story of Black Like Me. “It’s a useful historical document about the segregated era, which is still shocking to younger readers. It’s also a truthful journal in which Griffin admits to his own racism, with which white readers can identify and perhaps begin to face their own denial of prejudice. Finally, it’s a well-written literary text that predates the ‘nonfiction novel’ of Mailer, Capote, Tom Wolfe and others.”

Continue reading on SmithsonianMag.com.

Tags: Jim Crow, blacks, books, discrimination, race, racism

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Replies to This Discussion

Dallas thanks for this.  I read that book ages ago.  It would be worthwhile to read again.

having read the above, in an email, i attached your article and wrote this to my son:

 i read this book way back in the late 60's. i used to ride in the back of bus in west palm beach, florida, when we lived there*, cause, yes, the black people had to sit in back - amazing, huh?  my school was "lily white". there were separate water fountains !!!!!! and, of course, separate eating places, even separate hospitals, so you'd die before you got there even if you were right in front of a "white" hospital.  this was in the south - racism was different in the cities up here.  

mom

*i was 12-13  -  1957-8  

(we've lived NYC forever now, thank the goodnesses.)

 

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