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.

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

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