I remember reading John Howard Griffin’s book, Black Like Me, when I was in high school. The recommender, a white teacher, had told me that it was a poignant book about race in the United States. She applauded the author for his bravery, for his resolve to wear Black face in the 1950s segregated south just to see what it was like to be Black in America. She was amazed that a white man could be so empathetic about the race problem that he would want to experience it himself.
I didn’t understand why a white man would have to pretend to be Black when he could’ve just asked Black people about their real-life experiences. He could’ve read the writing of Black folks who were being consumed by the racist south (and north and midwest and west). Instead, he underwent a medical procedure and ultra-violet treatment to temporarily darken his skin and pass as a Black man in an effort to excavate our lives. Instead, he took money from Sepia Magazine, a publication owned by a Jewish American man and geared toward a Black audience, to fund his exploration. Instead, he kept a journal of his experiences as a “Black person” and turned his journal entries into a book.
Griffin wasn’t the first to do something like this. Ray Sprigle, another white journalist, had a similar idea a decade before. His book, In the Land of Jim Crow, is an account of his journey through the south passing as a Black man for 30 days. As Sprigle wrote:
“I quit being white, and free, and an American citizen when I climbed aboard that Jim Crow coach. . . . From then on, until I came up out of the South four weeks later, I was black, and in bondage — not quite slavery but not quite freedom, either.’’
Before it was a book, it was serialized newspaper story, complete with entries like: I Traveled, Ate Black; Acquiring a Negro Appearance; Does the Negro Hate the White Man; and What Do Negroes Really Want. Sprigle’s account and acclaim gave Griffin the precedent he needed to take the experiment a step further. Instead of 30 days, why not six weeks? Instead of trying walnut stain, but then deciding to just pass as Black due to the light color of so many Black folks, why not undergo surgery to actually change the skin color? Instead of having a Black person as a guide, why not go it alone?