The premise of Black Like Me couldn’t be more succinct or effective: a white journalist goes under medical treatments to turn his skin black in order to understand the black experience in the deep south in 1959.
This is an astonishing and gripping self-penned account of John Howard Griffin’s decision to try something radical. What’s the saying … not until you walk in my shoes? Griffin literally did, and he did so with compassion and searching eyes as he tried to understand how reality for the blacks could be as such.
The best decision he made as he planned out his trip into oblivion was to change absolutely nothing about himself except his skin color. He remained himself with his own name, his own family background, his writing credentials, his manners and vocabulary. One day he was John Howard Griffin, white man. The next he was John Howard Griffin, black man.
But skin color changed everything. As I mentioned before, Griffin, now in black skin, walked into oblivion. He suddenly felt marginalized and degraded. But even worse than that, as he describes, he discovers how the black community becomes invisible. Like the shoeshine man – some whites looked upon him as if he was a mere machine, plop a nickel in for a service with no human element about him at all.
Griffin’s experiences take him deep into the segregated south, emotionally draining him to the point where his past white life seems distant and unreal.
Griffin’s work is a tableau of the times, an indictment of the segregated south for sure, but it goes much deeper than just that. It delves into the inner recesses of man’s soul and asks piercing questions about the moral depravity that once tore the country apart.
This has been required reading in my US History class for years, and it should be required reading for all students. It puts racial issues – even the pertinent ones facing us today – in clear and unequivocal terms: to degrade any man because of his race is to degrade all of humankind.
While we need to continue to address racial grievances of today, we must also never forget how far we have come, nor the people who made history by standing up for what was right. This book is an excellent place to start for those who want to remember.