Black Like Me by John Howard Griffin

This book might be my final non-fiction read of the summer. Of course I’ve found myself browsing quite a few books on fiction writing, but I won’t bore you with the details of those here. Well, if I do, it definitely won’t be for official review purposes. My boyfriend said that this isn’t the review that he would have done. He would have taken it “there” and got all deep on ya’ll. But me…I like to entertain…I like to laugh…and most importantly…I like to hate. 🙂

“The Negro. The South. These are details. The real story is the universal one of men who destroy the souls and bodies of other men (and in the process destroy themselves) for reasons neither really understands. It is the story of the persecuted, the defrauded, the feared and detested. 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.” – John Howard Griffin

John Howard Griffin’s Bio: John Howard Griffin (1920-1980), writer, the second son of four children of John Walter and Lena May (Young) Griffin, was born in Dallas, Texas, on June 16, 1920. His mother was a classically trained pianist who taught for thirty years in the Fort Worth area, and his father was a fine Irish tenor and a radio personality as a younger man. His family influenced Griffin’s lifelong love for both music and literature. He attended R. L. Paschal High School in Fort Worth until he left the United States at fifteen in search of a classical education. He entered the LycĂ©e Descartes in Tours, France, completed studies in French and literature at the University of Poitiers, and studied medicine at the École de MĂ©decine…

Beginning at age nineteen, he worked as a medic in the French Resistance army, evacuating Austrian Jews to the port of St. Nazaire and to safety from the Nazis. He served thirty-nine months in the United States Army Air Corps in the South Seas. He was decorated for bravery and was disabled in the fighting during World War II. He lost his sight from 1946 until 1957. During his twelve years of blindness he wrote five novels (three unpublished) and began a journal in 1950 that had reached twenty volumes at the time of his death. (Read full bio from source)

Book: Black Like Me
Publisher: New American Library (2003 Edition)
Original Publication Year: 1960
Pages: 200 (including Afterword)

Opening Lines: For years the idea had haunted me, and that night it returned more insistently than ever. If a white man became a Negro in the Deep South, what adjustments would he have to make? What is it like to experience discrimination based on skin color, something over which one has no control?

Reason for selection: I’ve wanted to read this book since high school, but always found something else to read instead. My boyfriend purchased a copy for me and suggested that I finally satisfy my goal.

Cover art: I guess with a title like Black Like Me, most people can figure out what the book is about without much creativity from the publishers. “Let’s just throw the black version of Griffin on the cover or something. Anybody have any other ideas?”

Book Overview: Life was hard for Black folks in the 1950s South. Things were so bad for us that it took a white man, John Howard Griffin, to prove it. Instead of smearing on a coat of blackface and changing his name to Tyrone, Griffin goes all out and consults a dermatologist “as to the best method of darkening [his] skin” (6). Putting his health at risk, he also decides to take more than the recommended amount of an unstated medication and tans. Miraculously, within a week’s time the desired black skin appears. Unlike other minorities in this country, Griffin chooses to become “Negro” and agrees to write several articles for Sepia magazine based on his experiences.

Griffin’s stated purpose was to find out if the United Sates truly had “second-class citizens and what their plight was” (2). Of course interviewing various individuals in the southern states wouldn’t garner him the honest answers he was in search of. In six weeks time, through the senses of a black-white man, readers are provided the racist sentiments, stereotypical questions, hateful glares, and overall Jim Crow experience of the South.

Although it was noted that Griffin wanted to help blacks, in my opinion, this book wasn’t written for blacks. This book was written to confront white people of the time with a mirror of shame. Nevertheless, what I found interesting was how willing Griffin was to tell most black people which he encountered that he was really a white man. When he did so, it was like he wanted a pat on the back. Like he wanted black people to tell him thanks. I can think of very few white people which he provided this same information to. In my opinion, there were no real threats to his life; a reality that most blacks considered a possibility. Despite the lack of real danger while playing the role of a real-life Negro, Griffin somehow still manages to lose his manhood and self-esteem. It is therefore no surprise that Griffin couldn’t wait to rub the black off. He had to get back to his White life and all the privileges that came with it. Most importantly, Griffin was ready for the accolades that he would receive for attempting such a daring feat—he even discusses the interviews and praise during the last few pages of the book. Griffin also noted that whites weren’t pleased with his experiment and harassed him until he departed the country with his family for several months (it’s only fair to provide that detail).

Yet, was Griffin able to accomplish what he initially set out to do? Remember his goal wasn’t to expose southern racism, but rather to see if black people were truly second-class citizens. So did he demonstrate that blacks had little or no legal/civil rights or economic opportunities? Did he paint a graphic picture of black mistreatment in a variety of places and situations? Did he discuss the institutional structures which prevented southern blacks from even considering the American dream? The real question is, in my opinion, can one truly have discovered these things in just six weeks time while constantly traveling back and forth between states?

For the most part, Griffin played things safe. True, he had a wife and family and couldn’t get too outrageous to prove his point–but I needed more. There was never a point where Griffin was nearly lynched, chased down the street by an angry mob, or “put in his place” by whites. It seemed like anytime he was spoken to or looked at a certain way, these details became just something else that he could make a note of for his article or journal.

The Positives: I respect Griffin for what he attempted to do with his work. Without him it’s possible that whites would have never considered some of the arguments which he presented.

The Negatives: My next point could actually be added on to the positives, but unfortunately I have to place it here. It did appear as though Griffin had a real understanding of the struggles of black people in the South. Unfortunately, I just didn’t understand how he could jump into this black skin for a few weeks and suddenly be able to relate to what the black man thought and felt. Are black people that simple? Is the black experience that simple? Was his knowledge based on books that he read? Conversations he had? I just don’t believe that within a six week time frame that he would have all the understanding that he presented in conversations with whites.

I constantly found myself questioning whether he could have still acquired the information he desired through other means. It was funny that Griffin felt like if he was white, he wouldn’t be able to simply interview blacks to get the information he desired, yet he was so willing to announce to certain black people that he was really a white man. My point is, why trust black people to offer you advice or praise, but not trust them to tell you the truth about their experience? How would an ethnographic work have differed? Was his extreme method truly the only way?

Notable Excerpt: One of the more interesting parts of the novel featured Griffin accepting rides from white strangers at night. During these moments, white males would question him concerning sexual matters, flings with black women, and the size of black male genitals. In the following excerpt, Griffin sets the record straight when confronted with the point that black people can do better, but choose not to (an idea that I’m sure some people still agree with to this day).

“The Negro may not understand exactly how, but he knows one thing–the only way out of his tragedy is through education, training. Thousands of them sacrifice everything to get the education, to prove once and for all that the Negro’s capacity for learning, for accomplishment, is equal to that of any other man–that the pigment has nothing to do with degrees of intelligence, talent or virtue. This isn’t just wishful thinking. It’s been proved conclusively in every field…Southern newspapers print every rape, attempted rape, suspected rape and ‘maybe rape,’ but outstanding accomplishment is not considered newsworthy. Even the Southern Negro has little chance to know this, since he reads the same slanted reports in the newspapers” (93).

The Film Version: I’ve never seen the film version of this book. The center movie poster makes it appear as though the black experience is similar to some sort of horror movie. Is that a look of fear on his face? Even the quote is funny, “…Now I know what it feels like to be BLACK!” Like all white people are just dying to know what the BLACK experience entails (maybe they do though).

Maybe if this study is modernized, someone will consider cutting the “Black time” from six weeks to three. Griffin already proved that it most certainly wouldn’t take an entire year of being black to see what this life is like, right? After all, that’s what BET is for (I’m being sarcastic of course).

Other Publishings by John Howard Griffin:

Overall Rating: 3 out of 5. Was it worth the read? Yes. Was I feeling Griffin’s desire to supposedly help black people? No. Again, did he accomplish his goal of figuring out whether blacks were really second-class citizens? Not as well as he could have, but I understand you can only do so much in six weeks. Throw in a lynching, a mob chase, and some real white southern racist action and this rating might go a little higher.

Read related CNN article…

And I conclude with what Black Like Me isn’t–nor will it ever be. I’ll leave it up to you to interpret what that might mean.

Back to the world of fiction books. Happy Reading!


22 thoughts on “Black Like Me by John Howard Griffin

  1. NaySue,

    I wanted to commend you on your review of “Black Like Me.” It’s interesting. We share many of the same views (views that my colleagues would turn their noses up too) and I think you really hit the nail on its head; “did he accomplish his goal of figuring out whether blacks were really second-class citizens? Not as well as he could have…” Keep up the good work girl and look forward to the next post.

    Spring, Texas


  2. How do you manage to make serious topics funny? Then you always point out something that other people may not have considered. For example, the comments you made about the movie posters were too funny. I even did a search online to find bigger versions of each one. Your blog features some of the more interesting book reviews online. I just had to bookmark it today.


  3. NaySue,

    I read this in high school (well, *while in* high school, not for school) along with Dick Gregory’s “Nigger.” Honestly, I can’t recall much about “BLM” except the premise, and I don’t recall being moved by it, one way or the other. So your review has got me thinking about reading it again. “Nigger”, on the other hand, had quite a few memorable moments. I’m the Queen of Re-Reading, so maybe I’ll read those two again, in tandem, and see what the 35-year-old me comes away with.

    Glad to have met you at Hurston-Wright. Love the blog!


  4. Just want to let you know i couldnt find these pics on google anywhere… nice work on the site


  5. Hi, I don’t know if you’ll read this.
    Although, I understand your points, I think Mr. Griffin wasn’t so much trying to prove anything, but to understand. He was tormented by the treatment (p.7) of Black America in the South. I’m hispanic, and I try to understand in 2008 what he was trying to understand in 1959. The times were extremely different then; it was not “cool” to be black, It was dangerous. He trusted few black men, but only for pointers, and only because if he didn’t have them he would have gotten into serious trouble. So far, I really enjoy the book and it does provide insight. You probably think I’m stupid, but some “white” people are curious as to how that time of oppression influenced the black generation of today. And don’t get me wrong, other than jazz and blues, I’m not into hip hop or rap, I’m into culture and differences and what makes peoples’ minds tick.
    Anyway, just a thought… I love the pic of the white guys with black paint… super funny 🙂


  6. My students are currently reading Black Like Me. Can you tell me where I can get more pictures of Griffin during his experience, pictures suitable for printing out to show my students? Thanks.


  7. I just finish to read the book.oh my GOD! what ‘s a book i love it i tell everybody at work about the book . thats how much i love that book i enjoy it so so much….


  8. I don’t agree with your view on this book at all. Especially coming from a black person, I’m kinda shocked to hear you discredit it like that. I think the biggest point he set out to prove was that people were treated differently simply because of the pigment of there skin, which he said many times in the book. And nevermind the fact that he was traveling the South for only 6 weeks. The fact that he felt so degraded and invisible in the short time he spent as a black man says so much. Imagine how the blacks felt dealing with that their entire lives. And he was definately “put in his place” just by being forced to feel that way. I can’t believe the things you have said. I think you should go spend 6 weeks in the Deep South back in the 1950s.


  9. I read the book about 15 years ago, and again today. The part that hit me the hardest was that, although he was highly motivated and willing to risk his own life and that of his family, when he got uncomfortable in Hattiesburg he washed off the dye and called for help. After that, he didn’t stay “black” through the entire six weeks.

    As a white (I think) woman with a mixed son, I face discrimination often – not only when I am with my son, but also because I am overweight, scarred, and disabled. But when I read that book so long ago, I remember the part that hit me the hardest – that the man who wrote the book, who was so committed, who wanted more than anything to see race relations improve – washed off the dye.

    Can a black (or mixed) man wash off the “dye”?

    Think about it.

    I’ve lived in the north and the south, and it’s equally bad in both places – even now, even today. To me, that doesn’t necessarily speak of the writer’s weakness or lack of dedication to the cause. To me, it emphasizes even more strongly what it is like to be trapped inside a body that is looked at differently – like my own, like my son’s. Sometimes all we want is a way out – but there is none. Not all of us can wash off the dye and start a new life.


  10. he didn’t “wash off the dye” as you say it.
    what did you want him to do? permanently change his skin colour (which was not possible at the time)?
    you say this as if he was simply bored of being black. he changed back to white to gain further information on racists and blacks and the way they treated him now that he was socially “superior”.
    i don’t get it, what are you trying to say?


  11. Just finished reading this novel for the third time (it is one of my favourites).
    I think you make many excellent points, even though my opinion is different. I’m white and Canadian, so to read this book was difficult every time I picked it up. I have no idea what it is like to feel prejudice on this scale, and while it could be considered an easy, quick read, I would often have to stop after passages and think “What if I had been born into that era, in the South? How would I have been able to live alongside my black friends? Or, conversely, would I have been brought up a racist?”
    Perhaps Griffin doesn’t answer the question he initially sought to. Research studies often begin with one hypothesis and find they’ve stumbled upon something else. Perhaps, at the time of its happening, it was inspirational enough that it made people want to change.

    As to the Hattiesberg incident – It was poignant. In the book, all black people were consumed with such despair, perhaps they didn’t want to become white, but they craved a way out. Griffin’s first taste of this true agony, like touching his soul to a hot iron, had him scrubbing his skin raw. It wasn’t specifically that he no longer wanted to be black; he no longer wanted to be the subject of blinding hatred. Unfortunately, the two went hand in hand at the time.

    I cherish this book, even if it’s imperfect, because it made me consider ugly things I might otherwise not want to.


  12. Didn’t he only reveal his whiteness to Sterling and like two University Deans? Just as many white people knew of his experiment. So I think that quashes your theory that he just wanted a ‘pat on the back’. The only reason he even told Stering was so he’d have an ‘in’ to Black society. That also explains your problem with his ability to go from being from white to black. He had help, someone to let him in on the pitfalls.

    And frankly, I find your demand that his experience include a lynching in order to be meaningful, quite deplorable. I wouldn’t wish that on anyone, especially not as validation.


  13. It is wonderful to know that so many people love this book. Unfortunately, I have a different opinion and I believe that my argument and opinion makes sense. I’m sorry that so many people dislike it or disagree. Unfortunately, most of my opinions have been misinterpreted. I have considered responding to the posted comments and even clarifying myself, but I am willing to bet that most of the people who made comments in this section will more than likely not be returning to the site again. Maybe I’m wrong.

    Thank you for your passionate feedback.


  14. I just finished this book and was looking for more info and stumbled upon your site. Nice writeup and the images are good finds.

    For me, I think there are a lot of ways to judge a book and this book has it’s good and bad points but it is, for me at least, one of the books I wish every person would read.

    I think the world is better for every person that takes the thought and time to read this book.

    Now, if the publishers could just sell it as a diet, get rich quick, or celebrity gossip book in order to get people to read it, then they’d be doing their part for humanity.


  15. TheHappyVegetarian,
    I’m sure you are misjudging and falsely accusing Kasey.
    Kasey was making a point of how difficult it was to be constantly loathed in such a way.
    She respects Mr. Griffin and finds it very human to be dying to escape from this hell. He is a devoted man. But even he is forced to take this ‘black role’ off after a boiling point. She is referring to the scene where Mr. Griffin tries to find safety in another bus stop negro-restroom, in Atlanta station to be specific, yet meets with hate stares from an old white man. “It was a little thing, but piled on all the other things it broke something in me.”
    How the hell did you conclude that she meant he should have changed his skin color? Or she never said he went through this to be superior to both racists and Negroes.
    Were you deaf to her plea for more tolerance in her daily life?
    I am a Turk living in Istanbul and a part of society that never called themselves white, because people are people. Still, I feel for every individual who is wronged anywhere.


  16. Naysue-

    I was just on vacation and found this book in my cabin, and decided to finally read it after hearing about it for so many years. As I was reading it, I had the same sense that you did–how in the world can this guy so boldly state that he “feels black” in six weeks? Really, within the first day? Looking black is not being black — but then as I read on, I understood that he was not trying to “be black.” What many people seem to miss is that all along, from the very beginning, he said the only thing he wanted to change was the color of his skin- not his culture, his background, or all of those other things that make a person who they are. So he never “became a black man” – he was always a white man with black skin. He never denied that. And his point was that it was the black skin, and the black skin alone, that caused white people to treat him differently, and horribly. It was the black skin alone that relegated him to second class citizentry. I understand the insult that some might feel at the thought of a white man proclaiming to understand the black experience, but I don’t believe that is what Mr. Griffin was doing. I do believe he accomplished what he set out to do. Had a black man written a story recounting his treatment in the South in the ’60’s, many whites would not even read it, or if they did, they wouldn’t believe it, or would think it was exagerrated or untrue (just as when a white man writes it, many blacks discredit it, as you have done). Mr. Griffin set out to send a strong message to the white community — not to the whites of the KKK or the whites like those clearly racist and hate filled whites that he met along the way — but to the whites who were naive or ignorant, or in denial about what was really going on at the time. He wanted to turn the backs of those white people around, so that they were forced to face the facts of the time. His is an account that should be read, and re-read, throughout history, so that we never forget, we can never deny, and we will continue to progress.


  17. I enjoyed the review. I haven’t read this book since the early 1970’s and I assure you it was very shocking and enlightening at that time. I was a young white suburban kid at the time and there simply was not the kind of information or dialog available then that there is now. I remember watching the TV Show Julia about – as wikipedia say s – “an African American woman in a non-stereotypical role” – she was a Nurse. THAT was a breakthrough show, believe it or not. I have read that the author decided at the outset never to hide his intention or ethnicity if directly asked. I doubt any white people of the time would have been interested enough to think of asking, which might explain why he didn’t tell many. Though my parents were more “enlightened” than most (they too were involved in the marches in D.C.), it simply wasn’t possible for white people to comprehend the plight of any people of color without these sorts of “stunts” which served to disrupt the stereotypes and assumptions sufficiently to allow people to begin to comprehend things. When I read it, probably 10-12 years after it was written, it was a very tumultuous time. The Korean war had ended just prior to the book, and by the time I read it, the Vietnam war was well under way, the Cold war was on (and you can bet everyone was threatened by that), the counter-culture movement was front and center (hippies, etc.). All of these things probably tended to cause the larger “white America” to feel more and more threatened, and when threatened, most people grasp harder at their traditions and way of life. (Just consider the harsh reaction to Obama and the rush to McCain by older white men last election!) So though it may seem like a very short 6 – week stunt, believe me it must have felt like a huge and very scary leap at the time. Anyway – glad people are still reading the book – I looked it up because my kids are almost old enough to get a copy.


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