Black Like Me

For the film based on the book, see Black Like Me (film).
Black Like Me

First edition
Author John Howard Griffin
Country United States
Language English
Publisher Houghton Mifflin
Publication date

Black Like Me, first published in 1961, is a nonfiction book by journalist John Howard Griffin recounting his journey in the Deep South of the United States, at a time when African-Americans lived under apartheid-like conditions. Griffin was a white native of Dallas, Texas, who had his skin temporarily darkened to pass as a black man. He traveled for six weeks throughout the racially segregated states of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia to explore life from the other side of the color line. Sepia Magazine financed the project in exchange for the right to print the account first as a series of articles.

Griffin kept a journal of his experiences; the 188-page diary was the genesis of the book. When he started his project in 1959, race relations in America were particularly strained. The title of the book is taken from the last line of the Langston Hughes poem "Dream Variations".

In 1964, a film version of Black Like Me, starring James Whitmore, was produced.[1] A generation later, Robert Bonazzi published a biographical book about Griffin, these events, and his life: Man in the Mirror: John Howard Griffin and the Story of Black Like Me (1997).

Account of the trip

In late 1959, John Howard Griffin went to a friend's house in New Orleans, Louisiana. Once there, under the care of a dermatologist, Griffin underwent a regimen of large oral doses of the anti-vitiligo drug methoxsalen, and spending up to fifteen hours daily under an ultraviolet lamp.[2] When he could pass as an African American, Griffin began a six-week journey in the South. Don Rutledge traveled with him, documenting the experience with photos.[3]

During his trip, Griffin abided by the rule that he would not change his name or alter his identity; if asked who he was or what he was doing, he would tell the truth.[4] In the beginning, he decided to talk as little as possible[5] to ease his transition into the social milieu of southern U.S. blacks. He became accustomed everywhere to the "hate stare" received from whites.

After he disguised himself, many people who knew Griffin as a white man did not recognize him. Sterling Williams, a black shoeshine man in the French Quarter whom Griffin regarded as a casual friend, did not recognize him. Because Griffin wanted assistance in entering into the black community, he decided to tell Sterling about his identity and project. He first hinted that he wore the same unusual shoes as somebody else,[6] but Sterling still did not recognize him until Griffin told him.

In New Orleans, a black counterman at a small restaurant chatted with Griffin about the difficulties of finding a place to go to the bathroom, as facilities were segregated and blacks were prohibited from many. He turned a question about a Catholic church into a joke about "spending much of your time praying for a place to piss".

On a bus trip, Griffin began to give his seat to a white woman, but disapproving looks from black passengers stopped him. He thought he had a momentary breakthrough with the woman, but she insulted him and began talking with other white passengers about how impudent the blacks were becoming.


After his book was published, Griffin received many letters of support. He said they helped him understand the experience.[7]

Griffin became a national celebrity for a time. In a 1975 essay included in later editions of the book, he recounted encountering hostility and threats to him and his family in his hometown of Mansfield, Texas. He moved to Mexico for a number of years for safety.[8][9]


Journalist Ray Sprigle had undertaken a similar project more than a decade earlier. In 1948, Sprigle disguised himself as a black man and travelled in the Deep South with John Wesley Dobbs, a guide from the NAACP. Sprigle wrote a series of articles under the title, "I Was a Negro in the South for 30 Days," which was published in many newspapers.[10] The articles formed the basis of Sprigle's 1949 book In the Land of Jim Crow.


United States


See also


  1. Crowther, Bosley (May 21, 1964). "Black Like Me (1964) James Whitmore Stars in Book's Adaptation". The New York Times.
  2. snopes (18 October 2015). "Death of John Howard Griffin :". Snopes.
  3. "Black Like Me" Archived June 6, 2015, at the Wayback Machine., Stanley Leary
  4. "I decided not to change my name or identity. ... If asked who I was or what I was doing, I would answer truthfully." (page 4) Black Like Me, Signet & New American Library, a division of Penguin Group publishers.
  5. "I had made it a rule to talk as little as possible at first." (page 23)
  6. He looked up without a hint of recognition. ... He had shined them many times and I felt he should certainly recognize them.(page 26)
  7. "There were six thousand letters to date and only nine of them abusive." (page 184)
  8. Kevin Connolly (25 October 2009), Exposing the colour of prejudice, BBC News
  9. Jonathan Yardley (March 17, 2007), John Howard Griffinthe Finish, Washington Post
  10. Bill Steigerwald. "Sprigle's secret journey". Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Retrieved November 16, 2011.

External links

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