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'Black Like Me' celebrates 40th anniversary
(CNN) -- On a cool November 1959 night in New Orleans, Louisiana, a white journalist strolled down Canal Street, passing adult bars.
"Come in and see the girls," hawkers called to John Howard Griffin as he passed by. "Come in and see the girls."
Days later, Griffin strolled down the same street, passed the same hawkers. "They did not solicit me," Griffin wrote later.
The difference? The second time, Griffin was disguised as a black man. "Tonight they looked at me and did not see me," he wrote later in "Black Like Me," an account of a charade that made white America pause and consider its ways.
For six weeks, a dark-skinned Griffin traveled through the heart of the deep South -- Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia -- experiencing, first-hand, segregated lunch counters, "hate stares" from whites and the insult of being judged solely by skin color.
This year marks the 40th anniversary of his account of that journey in "Black Like Me," a startling, personal account of being "black" in the South. Since its 1961 publication, the book has sold 10 million copies worldwide, has been translated into 14 languages and was the basis of a 1964 film starring James Whitmore.
"The great power of this book, the real courage is that he faced his own racism and wrote about it," Robert Bonazzi, a close friend of Griffin's and his official biographer, said in a recent interview.
In a black man's shoes
Griffin's experiment stemmed from his research in the rise of suicide tendencies in Southern blacks, when he realized that "the Southern Negro will not tell the white man the truth."
The only way to know what it was like to be black, Griffin decided, was to become black. His journey began in New Orleans, where he took a week of medication and spent hours under a sun lamp to turn his skin a dark brown.
When Griffin first looked in the mirror and saw a black man looking back, he encountered his first taste of racism -- his own, reflected back at him.
"The transformation was total and shocking," he wrote. "I had expected to see myself disguised, but this was something else. I was imprisoned in the flesh of an utter stranger, an unsympathetic one with whom I felt no kinship."
His indoctrination into black life began at a New Orleans bus station. When he politely asked a white clerk for bus times, "she answered rudely and glared at me with such loathing I knew I was receiving what the Negroes call `the hate stare,'" he wrote. "This was so exaggeratedly hateful I would have been amused if I had not been so surprised."
In another instance a white bus driver prevented the blacks on the bus, including Griffin, from getting off the bus during a rest stop in Mississippi. Griffin and the others waited in discomfort for the trip to resume.
"I sat in the monochrome gloom of dusk, scarcely believing that in this year of freedom any man could deprive another of anything so basic as the need to quench thirst or use the rest room," wrote Griffin.
Before the book was published, Griffin wrote about the trip in a series of articles for Sepia, a black-owned magazine. The white press roundly praised his work, while the black press remained largely silent, or had little good to say.
"It is impossible for a white man to truly know the anguish, the degradation ... which gnaw at the soul of the Negro in America," an unnamed black journalist wrote after Griffin's work appeared. "Empathy, however sharp or genuine or sincere, cannot put a white man in the Negro's place."
Black activists were equally unimpressed. In his autobiography, Malcolm X wrote about Griffin: "If it was a frightening experience for him as nothing but a make-believe Negro for 66 days, then you think about what real Negroes in America have gone through for 400 years."
Ironically, the reaction in Griffin's hometown of Mansfield, Texas, was the most vicious. Griffin's family received death threats. A cross was burned in the yard of a black neighbor. Angry residents hanged Griffin in effigy in the center of town, branding the native son a traitor to the white race. Fearing for his family's safety, Griffin moved to Mexico, where he parlayed his work from the magazine articles into "Black Like Me."
The book debuted to acclaim, climbing the best-seller lists and making its author a favorite on the lecture circuit.
From the outset, Griffin noticed a disturbing pattern during his lectures: Whites in the audience would listen carefully and accept what he was saying about racism, but would not accept the comments of black audience members who were saying essentially the same things.
"I knew, and every black man there knew, that I, as a man now white once again, could say the things that needed saying but would be rejected if black men said them," he later wrote.
Since its publication, "Black Like Me" has become a standard of high-school and university curricula, though some feel the book is inadequate as a teaching tool.
"A much, much better book to show children what it was like, really like, to be a black in the deep South would be Richard Wright's "Black Boy," said English professor Claire Garcia of Colorado College in Colorado Springs. Other "more important and interesting" works, she said, would include Gwendolyn Brooks' poetry, books by Alice Walker and "thoughtful white writers from Harriet Beecher Stowe to Kate Chopin to Benjamin de Mott."
In a recent interview, Garcia did acknowledge that Griffin's book was "a significant historical/cultural phenomenon," and "important for its primary audience -- white people living outside the South who had little experience with black people or Jim Crow laws."
An adventurous life
Griffin, who died in 1980 at 60, lived his life on a level of adventure that most people can only imagine. He suffered diabetes-related blindness and paralysis, before and after "Black Like Me," but did not let those afflictions stifle his energy or wanderlust.
Born in Dallas, Texas, in 1920, Griffin was raised as a "genteel Southerner" in a town that was "strictly segregationist and racist in the intractable mold of the deep South," Bonazzi wrote in "Man in the Mirror," his biography of Griffin.
After attending high school at a boys' school in Tours, France, Griffin began studying music at the Cathedral of Tours. World War II interrupted his studies, so Griffin joined the French Resistance, helping smuggle Jewish children out of France. Eventually, Griffin's name ended up on a Nazi death list, said Bonazzi. He returned to the United States in 1941. He was 20.
Restless, Griffin joined the Air Force and served in the South Pacific, where he was wounded in 1945 during a Japanese air raid. His injuries, combined with his-then undiagnosed diabetes, caused him to gradually lose his sight. By the time he returned to Texas in 1947, Griffin was blind.
Griffin miraculously regained his eyesight in 1957, but in that decade of darkness, Griffin emphatically proved that his blindness was not a handicap. He raised purebred livestock "by feel" and in 1952 wrote "The Devil Rides Outside," his autobiography of life in France and the South Seas. It was published to critical acclaim and sold nearly 400,000 copies.
Seven years later, Griffin would darken his skin, and open the eyes of a nation.
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"Black Like Me"
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