Dust jacket art for ‘Black Like Me.’

Dust jacket art for ‘Black Like Me.’

by Hugh Gilmore

John Howard Griffin (born June 16, 1920) is famous for doing something that today sounds almost like a “Candid Camera” stunt: In 1959 he shaved his head and dyed his skin dark brown and then went through the South wearing a suit and tie, carrying a briefcase.

He wondered if folks, simply on the basis of his skin color, would perceive him as a “Negro.” And if the good citizens down there in New Orleans, Hattiesburg, Biloxi, and Montgomery did think he was a Negro, how would they treat him?

As you might imagine, not well. Jim Crow buses. “Colored” drinking fountains. “Whites only” bathrooms, restaurants, churches, sidewalks, movie seats, hotels, park benches, and service. Obey or die.

Fellow Negroes, seeing how confused and naive he was about southern customs, did all they could to shield this traveling stranger. One thing they could not protect him from, however, was the notorious “hate stare” beamed at him every time he said hello and dared to look at a white person.

Thirty days was about all Griffin could stand. The constant fear and disrespect put a rage in him he doubted he could control. He let the dye wear off and resumed his white identity. He’d gathered plenty of data from his semi-scientific experiment. He published his first reports in Sepia magazine, his sponsor.

Clamor and furor soon followed. Time magazine did a piece about him. He was interviewed on the Mike Wallace and Dave Garroway TV shows. His book, “Black Like Me,” was published in 1961 and became a best seller. Also, a (mediocre) movie was released in 1964.

Now entrenched in the curriculum of many high schools and colleges, “Black Like Me” is considered to be a valuable tool for teaching American history and encouraging students to develop empathy for persons of color. African-Americans, by and large, see the book as a good book for white people to read. They’re already living the experience, they say, so it’s not news to them. Nonetheless, it has not been out of print since.

You have to wonder, though, what kind of man undertakes such an experiment? He was not a college prankster. He was 39 years old, married, with children. A Texan. Some clues can be found in his past.

As a Texas teen he was awarded a scholarship to study music and literature in France, where he graduated from Poitiers University. Germany invaded France while he was there. Griffin took a quick study of medicine and joined the French Resistance as a medic at the French seaport of Saint-Nazaire. While there he also helped smuggle Austrian Jews to safety. Informed that the Nazis had put his name on their Kill List, he escaped back to America.

In the States he immediately joined the Army Air Force and served for 39 months in the South Pacific. On one of his assignments he served as the only Caucasian on the Solomon Islands, charged with studying local culture. On his next assignment he was in combat when an explosion blinded him.

Back in the states, he began writing despite his visual handicap. In 1952 he converted to Catholicism and became a lay Carmelite. In 1953 he married and fathered four children. In 1957 his vision suddenly, spontaneously, returned. Intensely philosophical and spiritual by now, he decided to undertake his experiment with skin color.

After his book was published, praise and controversy followed. He was even lynched in effigy. In 1964, Griffin, along with John F. Kennedy was awarded a Pacem in Terris Peace and Freedom Award by the Davenport (Iowa) Catholic Interracial Council. Griffin’s book will likely remain a classic of American sociological literature.

Strangely though, John Howard Griffin was not the first American journalist to darken his skin and travel though the South to write about Jim Crow. For years, Ray Sprigle, a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette had worn disguises and worked undercover, using the pseudonym James Crawford. He’d infiltrated coal mines, black market meat sellers, and state mental hospitals.

In 1948, after browning his skin, he journeyed through Florida, Georgia and the Mississippi Delta. His series was titled, “I was a Negro in the South for 30 Days,” and it ran in the Post-Gazette for 21 days. Throughout the series he wrote that a black man’s “rights of citizenship ran only as far as the nearest white man said they did.” The series was syndicated to 15 other newspapers, but appeared not at all in the South. In 1949 a book version of his experiences was published under the title, “In the Land of Jim Crow.”

So, why is Griffin’s book highly touted and Sprigle’s hardly known? Several factors seem to be at work. For one, the United States was not ready to discuss racial prejudice, especially of the legal kind, in 1949. For another, television had not emerged as a means of publicizing an event or trend or idea. Griffin’s sales were boosted enormously by the Time magazine story and his Dave Garroway and Mike Wallace TV show appearances.

Furthermore, though Sprigle’s book is the superior work of journalism, compared to Griffin’s, the latter’s work reads like a novel or memoir. It is easier to identify with, since anyone can imagine what it might be like to look in the mirror and be alienated from his own image. Even its title, “Black like Me,” provokes curiosity in a way that the objective-sounding “In the Land of Jim Crow” does not.

So, two men, similar journeys, similar tactics, similar trials, but one’s book is still read today and the other’s is a historical footnote. Sprigle was ahead of his time, but Griffin caught the rising wave of the future.

Hugh Gilmore’s recently published memoir, “My Three Suicides: A Success Story,” has now been on the Kindle Top-100 list for several months. Also available in paperback.