In 1959, John Howard Griffin (a white journalist) developed and participated in a controversial experiment. Curious to learn what life was like for black people in the South, he darkened his skin with medication and dye, then headed on a six-week-long journey through the south. Black Like Me is an autobiographical account of Griffin’s experiences. Starting in New Orleans and working his way into increasingly dangerous parts of the south, such as Mississippi, Griffin recounts his hardships and personal revelations.
Half a century has passed since Griffin’s experiment took place, and much literature has been published about racism in the South since that time. As such, many of the events in the book were unsurprising. One of the few parts that intrigued me was where Griffin was hitchhiking at night; he’d get picked up by white men, then get peppered with questions about his sexual experiences. That white men were basing their questions on the stereotype of the hypersexual black man did not surprise me; however, the bold nature of some of their questions was a bit startling. What also surprised me was that Griffin would even hitchhike in the dark on lone rural roads, much less get into a vehicle with a total stranger in such settings.
When the book was released, two things happened: many white readers were alarmed at the reality Griffin recounted and were forced to look at their own roles in the suffering of others. However, many readers were also outraged that Griffin would dare publish such a thing. He received death threats, and his parents and family were harassed and threatened to the point where they all decided to move to Mexico.
I can appreciate the book for its role in history, and I can appreciate Griffin’s experiences in a historical context. However, while I was listening to the book, I also kept getting a nagging feeling that eventually turned into annoyance. While Griffin’s experiences were indeed eye-opening and he did an admirable job of trying to shine a light on racism, I was annoyed by the fact that Griffin would never truly get the black experience. A black person in the South wasn’t able to scrub the blackness of his skin whenever he felt overwhelmed by daily oppression. Yet Griffin, towards the end, would “pass” back and forth between black and white. I was also annoyed by the fact that people would read this for an account of the “black experience,” when in fact, many autobiographical books about the black experience—by actual black people—already exist.