Why you should care
Because before Eddie Murphy’s transracial skit, there was a very real one with very real consequences.
“If a white man became a Negro in the Deep South, what adjustments would he have to make?”
A query posed by just about no one now, and certainly no one in any way familiar with Jim Crow cruelties back when they were running rampant. But after a full and thorough consideration of exactly what cosmetic adjustments would have to be made, John Howard Griffin, a white son of the South and a syndicated columnist for the International News Service, made the necessary adjustments and away he went. Using a drug prescribed for darkening the skin against the lightening disorder vitiligo, Griffin shaved his head, waded far more than skin deep into what it meant to be a Black man in the American South of the 1950s, and walked out into a world as different from the one he had left as day is from night. He would piquantly describe it as a “personal nightmare.”
A whole 30 days before he lost it, scrubbed as much of the browning chemicals off his skin as he could and checked himself into a monastery.
First there were the random — some would say pointless (though there was clearly a point) — beatings. Beyond that, the threat of beatings, racial invective and generalized contempt, which helped Griffin, a World War II vet and member of the French Resistance who had aided Jewish kids in escaping France before being targeted by the Gestapo himself, quickly see that America was indeed broken. Broken and split along lines voiced largely by Blacks and, until then, largely ignored by whites.
“There’s been a traditional tendency afoot in America to minimize the complaints of aggrieved parties as so much ‘whining,’” says Robert Clyne, a Yale anthropologist currently working in Africa. “This self-serving narrative just shuts down any real discussion,” he adds, referring to the discussion Griffin very much wanted to have.
With $200 in his pocket, Dallas-born Griffin headed to Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia — any port in a storm. By bus or hitchhiking, he took experience as experience took him, soaking up all that life as a Black man in the South had to offer. This ranged from getting picked up by white travelers only to be dragged into creepy sex chats while they insisted that most of the Black people they knew were happy, self-loathing folks, to encounters with a few decent white people who extended collective apologies.
He lasted a month.
A whole 30 days before he lost it, scrubbed as much of the browning chemicals off his skin as he could and checked himself into a monastery. Having endured paralysis from spinal malaria and blindness, both of which he’d overcome, a month as a Black man was about all he could take. When his book about that time came out — something he figured would be of academic interest to only a few — it took off. Now translated into 14 different languages, Black Like Me proved such a hit that Griffin had to flee with his family to Mexico for a bit as the death threats south of the Mason-Dixon Line flowed fast and not a little furiously.
Griffin wasn’t the first to try this; Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Ray Sprigle did very much the same thing — making it about just as long — back in 1948. But that was a far cry from doing it in 1959, as evidenced by the death threats that drove Griffin into a brief exile. Or by him dying, not from the darkening chemicals but from diabetes-related heart failure. At the age of 60. Telling America what a goodly portion of America already knew: It’s tough out there.
And in “post-racial” America, does it travel well? “Maybe now more than ever,” Clyne says. “Atonement is, apparently, a very long, slow process.”
Or as Ed Newton, a former Los Angeles Times writer and member of Pulitzer Prize–winning teams that reported on the 1992 LA riots, put it: “Obama is the president, but Black Lives Matter was created very precisely because it seems like they don’t matter nearly enough.”