Black Like Me: A White Man's Experience of Segregation

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Published in 1961, "Black Like Me" recounts a six-week experience traveling as a black man on a Greyhound bus though the racially segregated South. Panther Books

Former NAACP leader Rachel Dolezal is not the first American to cause controversy by changing her race. John Howard Griffin, through the use of medication and ultraviolet rays, disguised himself as a black man in the segregation-era South to better understand the experience of being black in America. Newsweek reviewed his much-studied book, Black Like Me, on October 9, 1961.

The Hate Stare

With this book, John Howard Griffin easily takes rank as probably the country's most venturesome student of race relations. From November 7 to December 14, 1959, the white man lived disguised as a Negro, travelling about in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia. His record of rebuff makes a piercing and memorable document.

Griffin, 41, a family man of Mansfield, Texas, had been blinded as a result of a wartime injury (while sightless, he wrote two novels, Nuni and The Devil Rides Outside), but in 1957 he recovered his sight. Long concerned with racial issues, Griffin was encouraged by George Levitan, owner of Negro picture magazine Sepia, to investigate prejudice from the receiving end. He darkened his skin by taking a medication used for vitiligo (a disease that produces white spots on the body), reinforced by ultraviolet rays and stains. Griffin then began a journey haunted by white men's eyes fixed upon him in the gaze which Negroes call "the hate stare."

Questions

Merely to wash his hands, visit a lavatory, get a drink of water or buy a meal, he often had to walk farther than white people. To find commercial or industrial jobs among whites seemed well nigh impossible. He could buy anything he wanted in drugstores but could not use their soda fountains. He could not swim at vast public beaches. Certain white people treated him with friendliness, but the attitude of most varied from surliness to the insinuating curiosity of drivers who picked him up as a hitchhiker, then quizzed him about Negro sex life, generally expecting it to be torrential and bizarre.

Griffin gives many examples of violent racial attitudes. After the whites had gotten off for a rest stop, one bus driver would not let the Negroes follow. A plant foreman said he was gradually weeding out Negro jobholders, and added: "We're going to do our damndest to drive every one of you out of the state." A white employer boasted that he never hired a Negro woman unless he possessed her.

Across a Frontier

One of the things that eased Griffin's travels was the repeated courtesy of Negroes to each other and to himself as a colored man. But during most of his travels he had the feeling of having crossed a frontier into a world of asphyxiating limitations. Often he had an uncanny sense that he had become a Negro, and he gives a remarkable idea of how powerful and painful that illusion was. Of one man who gave him "the hate stare," he writes:

It came from a middle-aged, heavy-set, well-dressed white man. He sat a few yards away, fixing his eyes on me. Nothing can describe the withering horror of this. You feel lost, sick at heart before such unmasked hatred, not so much because it threatens you as because it shows humans in such an inhuman light. You see a kind of insanity, something so obscene the very obscenity of it (rather than its threat) terrifies you. It was so new, I could not take my eyes from the man's face. I felt like saying: "What in God's name are you doing to yourself?"

After he returned to Texas, Griffin wrote articles for Sepia and appeared on the Dave Garroway, Mike Wallace and other TV programs. He was hanged in effigy on Main Street in his hometown, but of the 6,000 letters he received about his meaningful masquerade, only nine were abusive.