Black Like Me was the latest choice for my book club inspired by Tales of the City by Armistead Maupin. It features a white character who passes as black. We all thought this sounded kind of far-fetched until my friend, A, remembered that she’d heard of a real life case where someone had done this. We were intrigued and decided to explore this for our next read.
John Howard Griffin was an investigative journalist who grew up in Texas and decided to use a combination of vitiligo drugs, exposure to UV light and make-up to temporarily attempt to pass as black and spent time in the deep South in the 1950s. Griffin’s intention was to change nothing about himself except his appearance in order to prove that discrimination at this time was purely based on skin colour and to truly experience for himself what the African-American population was going through at the time.
Through diary entries Griffin discusses his transformation and his experiences talking about not only the emotional effect of being treated as subhuman by whites and the risks to his personal safety but also simple practicalities like not being able to find a bathroom or cafe where he could relieve himself or eat and how these elements combined to create a society that conspired to keep an entire race group from prospering.
Griffin also talks about the aftermath of his experience and the terrible backlash he and his family faced.
While sixty years on it’s easy to look at some of what Griffin went through and feel like there’s an element of a white man having to have the experiences in order to validate them but I think it has to be remembered that at the time black voices and opinions were almost completely invisible.
It’s also easy to say that we’ve moved past this kind of disgusting discrimination but you only have to look at the Black Lives Matter campaign or the hideous attack in Orlando last weekend to realise that human beings are just as capable of hating each other for no logical reason than they have ever been and Griffin’s experiences are still very relevant.
A touching and very affecting reading that I would high recommend. 4/5