What Happened When A White Man “Became” Black In Mid-20th Century America

Upon his return, Griffin soon became something of a celebrity, being interviewed by Mike Wallace and profiled by Time magazine — but that national notoriety also spelled danger for Griffin and his family.

In Mansfield, where Griffin lived, he and his family received death threats; at one point he was even hung in effigy. That overt hostility eventually forced Griffin and his family to move to Mexico, where he compiled his findings into a book.

That book was called Black Like Me. Published in 1961 and since translated into 14 languages and a film, the harrowing stories within its pages, coupled with Griffin’s own transformation, generated strong (if not polarizing) public responses.

John Howard Griffin

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Some critics thought Griffin’s “revelations” were nothing new, and that his trip was little more than a masquerade. Others, such as The New York Times’ Dan Wakefield wrote that in order to understand the headline-making “outbreaks of racial conflict,” people needed to first “be aware of the routine torments of discrimination as they plague they everyday life of particular individuals,” which is what Wakefield believed Griffin’s book did.

Griffin would spend the remainder of his life traveling and speaking about his sojourn — and the negative responses were always with him.

One day in 1964, Griffin was traveling in Mississippi when he got a flat tire. He stood by the side of the road waiting for help, when “a group dragged him away and beat him with chains,” Griffin’s biographer and friend Robert Bonazzi told the Houston Chronicle, leaving him for dead.

Griffin faced plenty more adversity before dying 16 years later, of a heart attack, at the age of 60.

Decades later, the book and its author have fallen under inevitable scrutiny. What was once regarded as groundbreaking and sympathetic can just as easily be described as patronizing minstrelsy today.

As Sarfaz Manzoor of The Guardian writes:

“Today the idea of a white man darkening his skin to speak on behalf of black people might appear patronizing, offensive and even a little comical.

Griffin felt that by blacking up he had ‘tampered with the mystery of existence’, which sounded profound when I read it at 16, but now seems typical of Griffin’s rather portentous prose, which occasionally makes one doubt the credibility of what he is describing.”

Still, as Manzoor writes, we live in a world where “routine torments of discrimination” continue to occur. For that reason and in spite of its flaws, Black Like Me will remain a vital text for the foreseeable future.

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