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John Howard Griffin is a pudgy white guy from Texas who wants to know what it's like to be a pudgy black guy in the American South in the 1950s. We can already tell that this is going to be a story full of fun times and laughter. Except not really. Griffin ends up hating it so much that he runs away. Twice. But let's not get ahead of ourselves.
Griffin is a journalist, so he figures that he'll do this experiment as a piece of investigative journalism and publish it in a magazine when everything is done. When he goes to propose the story, everyone thinks he's crazy. But they approve it anyway.
After finding a dermatologist who is willing to darken his skin, sitting in front of sunlamps, and taking special medicine, Griffin is finally ready. He cuts off his hair, puts on sunglasses to cover his eyes, and makes his way to the black part of town.
He freaks out. Once he realizes what he's done, Griffin kind of has a breakdown. Understandable. We'd freak out if we were suddenly subject to disgusting pre-Civil Rights racism one day. But there's no turning back now, so it's time to get a job and find a place to stay.
So about that racism. Yeah, it's a part of everyday life. Griffin can't even go to the bathroom without being reminded that as a black man, he's a second-class citizen, and apparently infectious.
Griffin's adventures of being a black man kind of get repetitive after a while, so we'll sum things up for you. Racism sucks, way, way, way more than Griffin could have ever imagined. He has nightmares about it. Guys, he has PTSD from being black. That's serious.
The racism he encounters includes huge things like being denied voting rights, but also small things like not being able to go to a certain bathroom or cash a check, and just getting the stink-eye everywhere you go. Griffin meets guys who are only interested in black people having sex. He meets people who forget all that love thy neighbor stuff when they see him, even right out of church. He also meets people who think that they are helping, but are actually part of the problem.
But racism isn't the only thing that Griffin discovers while he's black. He also discovers that the black community is taking its advancement into its own hands. Black people are uniting with one another, educating themselves, producing strong leaders and resisting self-hatred. They are growing into a strong and vibrant community. So it's no wonder that the only times Griffin doesn't seem to be scared are when he's surrounded by black people.
Then, Griffin decides one day that he's done with all of the prejudice and hate. The experiment is over, but the story isn't. When the news of his experiment gets out, Griffin's life changes entirely. His whole town turns against him. They even burn an image of him in effigy! In the end, his whole family moves to Mexico because they can't deal with the hatred and the threats.
The book ends shortly after the day his neighbors threatened to castrate him—they don't, though, phew. Griffin just spends the day cleaning up his parents' house with a young black boy who wonders why white people hate him so much.