Bet you didn't think that a book titled Black Like Me would be written by a white guy. We know. He tricked lots of people: that's why he's famous.
This trickster's name is John Howard Griffin and he published Black Like Me in 1961, just three years after his 1959 experiment passing for a black man. He kept a diary to document his experiences, and turned his 188-page story into a series of articles for Sepia magazine. And what happened then? Stuff got real.
Let's back up a bit. What's the big deal, you say? Let's just say that it wasn't a walk in the park to be a southern black man in the late 1950s. Actually, it gave Griffin nightmares that would wake him up screaming in the middle of the night even after the experiment was over. So yeah: not fun times.
It seems obvious to us now, but there were a lot of people at the time (we'll call them racists) who didn't want anyone to know how badly black people were treated. This was, of course, right at the turn of the Civil Rights Movement. Griffin had told the racist's secret to the whole world: black people were being treated abysmally.
So what stuff got real? Well, when Griffin first published the book he had many supporters. He actually became kind of a celebrity for a while. But not everyone was so happy about his hijinks, and they showed it: an effigy of him was burned in his hometown right in the middle of the street, and people threatened to castrate him. Things got so bad that his family moved to Mexico to get away from the threats.
Despite (or maybe even because) of all the craziness surrounding Griffin's experiment, Black Like Me is his most famous, successful, and controversial book. Griffin is no slacker, and it was only his fourth book out of thirteen, but this is the one that people remember. It's also the one that was turned into a film in 1964. We'd say that means it was pretty popular.
For his truly immersive investigative journalism, Griffin was awarded The National Council of Negro Women Award in 1960, and the Pacem in Terris award in 1964. Not too shabby for a dude who had been blind up to two years before (seriously!) he set out on his incognito experiment.
You should care about Black Like Me if you're Caucasian. Or if you're African American/Black. Or if you're East Asian, South Asian, Middle Eastern, Latino/Hispanic, Pacific Islander, Native America/ Pacific Islander, or Other.
Basically, whatever box you tick on government forms, you should care about Black Like Me. Hey, even if you've shredded up government forms and run off to live in the wilderness with a pack of wolves and eat raw meat and howl at the moon… you should still care about Black Like Me. No ethnicity is exempt from caring about this stunning work of nonfiction.
Why? Because all of humanity is implied in the central argument of Black Like Me: that all people, regardless of race, deserve to be treated fairly and equally and respectfully. And that you don't get to assume anything about a race other than your own until you've walked at least a miles in their shoes.
John Howard Griffin should know, because he walked, bussed and hitchhiked through hundreds of miles of the American South disguised as a black man. And this dude wasn't a saint—he thought he was setting out on a hijinks-filled adventure to explore the merry lifestyle of the fun-loving African American. Yeah, he learned his lesson. He was shocked by the hatred he was met with while disguised as a black man.
And he got to thinking: what is race, anyway? Where are the boundaries of race, and why on earth are we so keen on defining and classifying people based on the color of their skin? How much of race is nature and how much is nurture? What makes us all fundamentally human?
Yeah. It gets deep.
Black Like Me is filled with these kinds of questions: questions that leave you staring into the cosmos (or just down a crowded subway car) and thinking Big Thoughts. But it's also written in layman's terms: Griffin wanted everyone to read this book and be able to ponder questions about race, hatred, love, and humanity.
And no one—not one human being—gets out of caring about these questions and their implications. Not even if you've run off to live as a hermit among the wolves.
Personal Biographer To the Man Himself
This website of Morgan Atkinson lets you get to know the man who went around the country interviewing people just so that you could know a teensy bit more about John Howard Griffin.
We Thought That Looked Familiar
This book is so popular that everybody wants in on the deal, so it's no surprise that the trope of doing an experiment just like Griffin shows up all over popular culture.
They Thought It Was a Good Idea at the Time
Black Like Me is the type of book that lends itself to being turned into a movie, what with all the fancy imagery. The part they didn't think through was the blackface…
No One-Hit Wonder
Did you know that John Howard Griffin is famous for things other than Black Like Me? Well, now you know.
Don't Say We Didn't Warn You
We said that blackface was bad. But if you're still interested, you can get a DVD of your very own.
Don't Be Eye-Color-ist
Can you guess how this teacher's versions of Griffin's experiment using eye color instead of race ends? We won't spoil it for you.
So, it looks like Columbia University has been digging through Griffin's mail. Or as they call it, "archiving his letters."
It's that Guy with the TV Show.
Remember when Griffin went on all the shows there were to go on? Well Don Rutledge was one of those guys, and here is what he has to say.
It's Opposite Day
You know what's way more common than a white man trying to pass as black? That's right, a black person trying to pass as white.
We Couldn't Help It
Look for yourself. Is it as bad as they say?
Happy 50th Birthday, Black Like Me
We kinda felt a little heart twinge reading this, you know, not that we are softies or anything.
Man, Griffin is just inspiring people left and right. Here's a black guy on a journey to find the whitest communities in the USA.
Passing: For Dummies
In case you still weren't quite sure what this whole passing business is about.
That is the least black-looking black man we have ever seen. Oh, wait; Griffin is the one on the left.
What You've Been Waiting For
If you are like us, you've been dying to know what this whole experiment really looked like. Well here you are.
Frenchy French French
Remember that restaurant that Griffin spent all that time talking about? It's still going strong, and we assume a black man can get some huîtres variées there now.