White Like Me

As a middle-class teenager growing up in Carrollton, I didn't think much about race. Then I read John Howard Griffin's searing account of crossing the color line.

August 2004By Comments

WHEN THE SUPREME COURT HANDED down its groundbreaking Brown v. Board of Education decision fifty years ago, I was working on my curveball and didn’t notice. There were other momentous events of 1954, of course—the McCarthy hearings, the various permutations of the cold war, the advent of Elvis—but the most important and far-reaching was the Court’s ruling to end the “separate but equal” doctrine. Still, as someone who had grown up in a segregated world, I didn’t really understand the emotional and psychological impact of Jim Crow until 1961, when I read a book called Black Like Me. Written by John Howard Griffin, it was a remarkable account of a journey through the Deep South by a white man posing as a Negro. Today this American classic is little known among my students at the University of Texas, but a “definitive edition,” published in May by San Antonio’s Wings Press, should attract a whole new generation of readers.

Griffin lived an extraordinary life. Born in Dallas in 1920, he left home at fifteen to travel alone to France, where he pursued—in French—a classical education at the Lycée Descartes in Tours and also studied medicine and music, which had always interested him. With the onset of World War II, he joined the French Resistance, helping transport to safety Jewish children disguised as mental patients. Returning to Dallas in 1941, he joined the Army Air Forces and spent three years in the South Pacific, studying the indigenous culture of a remote island in the Solomons. It was there, in 1945, that he suffered an injury that would leave him blind for seven years. In 1955 he became paralyzed for a year from a case of spinal malaria contracted during his time in the islands.

By then Griffin was living on a farm near Mansfield, southeast of Fort Worth, and the next year he became involved in efforts to integrate the town’s school system. Three years later he embarked upon his next station of the cross: He undertook, as one writer has put it, “the pilgrimage par excellence of our time.”

Griffin worked out an arrangement with the black magazine Sepia, whose offices were in Fort Worth. In return for funding his trip through the South, he would write up an account to be published in the magazine upon his return. And so, in the fall of 1959, Griffin shaved his head and, under a doctor’s supervision, took pills and sun-lamp treatments to darken his skin. When he looked in a mirror, what he saw was shocking: “the face and shoulders of a stranger—a fierce, bald, very dark Negro—glared at me from the glass,” he wrote. “He in no way resembled me.” He decided to enter the Negro world in New Orleans, a city he knew well, and immediately began to experience the difficulties of ordinary life on the wrong side of the color line. Everything that white people took for granted—finding a place to eat, getting a drink of water, locating a restroom—became a logistical problem. Whites would sell him cigarettes in a drugstore but would not give him a glass of water.

To most whites he was either invisible or despised. The same street barkers who had solicited him to enter their bars when he was a white man ignored him as a black man. A young female clerk in a store who had been friendly to him when he was white now looked at him as if he didn’t exist. He was Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. But among the city’s Negroes, he was accepted and given help. One man, Sterling Williams, who operated a shoe-shine stand, was amazed when Griffin told him that he had come there earlier as a white man and had his shoes shined. Williams became an ally and an adviser, and Griffin spent a week shining shoes. He moved on to Mississippi, where the Negro was not a second-class citizen but a “tenth-class citizen.” Mississippi was awful, a nightmare. Every Negro man was called a boy, and Griffin was warned by other blacks to not even look at a movie poster of a white woman. The next stop was Mobile, Alabama, then Montgomery, then Atlanta. As a black man hitchhiking in the Deep South, Griffin got many rides from white men, nearly all of whom wanted to talk in the darkness about Negroes’ sexuality. Everywhere he turned, the racial divide was the overriding issue of the day. Toward the end of his two-month journey, as his color faded, he took to “zigzagging,” going white by day, black by night.

Once Griffin’s Sepia pieces began to appear, in March of 1960, he ceased to be a private figure. There were demands for interviews in the press and on TV. In Mansfield, he was met with stony silence and hung in effigy. After he died, in 1980, an urban legend circulated that he had had cancer caused by the skin-darkening treatments. In fact, he died from a combination of longstanding problems stemming from diabetes and a heart condition.

Black Like Me, whose title was taken from a Langston Hughes poem, has sold more than 11 million copies and has been translated into fourteen languages. Reading it became a rite of passage for many Americans who knew that segregation was wrong but did not know what it felt like to be black. Griffin showed us.

Before I read it, my sense of blackness—of Otherness, one might say today—was that of a middle-class Southern white youth. I grew up on a cotton farm in Collin County, and in our family, blacks were referred to as “colored” or “Negroes” but never the other word. I heard the other word on the school grounds, in public places, and from an early age associated it with people who were either ignorant or white trash, depending on the speaker. It was long before the terms “African American” or “black” became standard usage.

The color line was particularly noticeable at the county courthouse in McKinney, where water fountains were designated “For Whites” and “For Colored Only,” and I was also aware that Negroes sat somewhere else in the movie theaters where my cousins and I watched westerns and the Bowery Boys, but the enforced separation of the races seemed as natural as the rules governing Sunday school dress.

In Carrollton, a suburb of Dallas where we moved in the early fifties, I came into contact with more blacks, but not in school. The summer of 1954, my dad got me a job chopping cotton on a nearby farm. I had thought I was done with that kind of labor forever, and indeed I was. I lasted only one day, and the next I went to work as a caddie at a country club that had just opened east of town. The very idea of a country club was exotic in the extreme, and the Columbian Country Club especially so because it was Jewish. The caddies were white and black boys who wanted to make some money. One bag for eighteen holes was $3, a double $5. The system was instructively democratic. Black and white competed equally, and the first to arrive in the morning, long before sunup, received the first assignment. The days were long and hot, and the boys, all thrown together, passed the time talking about everything. Nearby was a swimming pool where the daughters of the rich sunbathed or swam in sumptuous idleness. It was the American dream all down the line—except, of course, for the young black boys, who at day’s end returned home to a separate and unequal existence.

The Carrollton schools remained segregated through my four years of high school, 1954 to 1958, yet black culture was making itself felt in all sorts of ways. Gordon McLendon’s KLIF-AM played a lot of black dirty-bop songs like “Work With Me Annie” and its sequel “Annie Had a Baby (Can’t Work No More),” songs that had a different rhythm and meaning from those on TV’s Your Hit Parade.

After I graduated, nothing much changed in Carrollton, except that black high school students were bused to Denton, 25 miles away. I went off to Texas Christian University, in Fort Worth, where one of the boys in my all-white dorm had 28 pairs of shoes, and I learned something else about the American dream. But it was on a bus that I got my first taste of what it might be like to be black. When I would go back to Carrollton for weekend visits, I always rode a Trailways to Dallas and changed buses there. As everybody knows, buses were the main battleground in the early days of integration. I didn’t know that in 1958, but on one of those trips, as people were boarding, I was sitting about halfway back when a loud altercation broke out. An elderly white man was shouting at a young black woman who had dared to take a seat in the front. His anger and yelling drove her to the back of the bus. The rest of us sat in silence—embarrassed, I like to think—and I was humiliated by my failure to challenge the old racist. The memory burns in my mind all these years later, and it is the only bus trip I made that year about which I can recall any details at all.

I suspect that Black Like Me has always been pretty much a book for whites. It received widespread critical praise when it was published—except in the black community, where commentary was sparse and critical. Malcolm X, for example, dismissed the book in his autobiography: “If it was a frightening experience for him as nothing but a make-believe Negro for 66 days, then you think about what real Negroes in America have gone through for 400 years.”

Black Like Me came along before Selma, before the murder of Medgar Evers, before Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a dream” speech. It arrived before there was a black canon in colleges and universities. The book had a moral power that has not diminished with time. It still has things to teach us about the past—and the present.

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