When John Howard Griffin’s account of his journey through America’s Deep South was first published in 1961 it caused a sensation, not just for its expose of racism there but for the fact that Griffin was a white writer who had disguised himself as black.
Using a mixture of sun lamps, medication and make-up to turn his skin dark, he had set out to experience what was like to live on the other side of the colour line in segregated America.
Enlightened though he believed himself to be, nothing could have prepared him for the shock of no longer being considered a “human individual”.
At the end of his six-week journey in 1959, his experience of wearying rejection and threatened violence leave him psychologically scarred. He begins to wear a sullen and wary expression and when he writes of “we” he is genuinely identifying with those who are subjected to the same routine abuse and hatred every day of their lives.
Although Griffin does not explore the roots of US racism – slavery is not mentioned at all – he is painfully honest about his own prejudices as well as his once starry eyed belief in Southern courtesy.
The firestorm that followed its publication made Griffin famous or infamous depending where you stood – he received regular death threats and his effigy was ‘lynched’ in his Texas home town.
Recently republished by Souvenir Press to mark its 50th anniversary, Black Like Me may not make the headlines any longer; after all the US president is a black man. But it is still a shocking read because the ignorance and cruelty it describes are so recent.
It also reminds us that the mind twisting that led to the conviction then that black people were inferior can occur in any society and against any people deemed to be the enemy within, as today’s world shows with tragic consequences.
An epilogue written by the author himself, a new foreword by the essayist Studs Terkel, and an afterword by Griffin’s biographer Robert Bonazzi are interesting additions to this readable and moving book.
Published: 4 February 2010
Black Like Me
Souvenir Press, London