Biography of Black Like Me Author John Howard Griffin Part 1

About the author of Black Like Me John Howard Griffin, biography and history of the writer and civil rights activist.


JOHN HOWARD GRIFFIN (1920-1980). Writer, civil rights activist, musicologist.

One of the most vivid personal accounts of the experience of being black in America, Black Like Me, was written by a white man, John Howard Griffin. In 1959 Griffin went to a New Orleans doctor who administered the drug Oxsoralen, which makes skin turn a dark brown upon exposure to the ultraviolet rays of the sun or a sunlamp. Used in conjunction with a vegetable dye, it allowed Griffin to "pass" for black and find out firsthand the prejudice Negroes had to endure.

"As a Southerner," said Griffin, who was born in Dallas, Tex., in 1920, "I became increasingly tormented by the similarity of our racist attitudes and rationalizations to those I had encountered in Nazi Germany. I began to do studies dealing with the problems and patterns of racism. In 1959, convinced that we were making little progress in resolving the terrible tragedy of racism in America--a tragedy for the white racist as well as for the Negro (and other) victim groups--I had myself medically transformed into a Negro and lived in the states of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia.

"I wanted to test whether we really judge men as human or whether we draw up an indictment against a whole group. I kept my name and changed nothing but my pigment."

On assignment from Sepia magazine, Griffin hitchhiked, walked, and rode buses through the South for six weeks and discovered to his dismay the extent and intensity of racial hatred that existed.

On one bus ride to Hattiesburg, Miss., he was not allowed to get off at a rest stop with the white passengers. In another incident, this time on a New Orleans city bus, the driver refused to let Griffin out at his requested stop and drove on for eight more blocks before opening the door.

Whenever Griffin managed to hitch rides with whites, they seemed always to turn the conversation toward one general subject--the sexual appetites, preferences, and private parts of blacks. His questioners wanted to know if all the sexual myths about blacks were true and if he had ever had or wanted a white woman. One driver even went so far as to ask Griffin to expose himself because he had never seen a black man completely naked.

Later Griffin was told to "move on" in a public park, was not allowed access to restaurants and rest rooms, had his change thrown on the floor when he tried to purchase a bus ticket, and was given what he called the "hate stare" whenever he came in contact with whites. In general, he learned the daily indignities that blacks had to suffer and it made him sick at heart.

Black Like Me was compiled from Griffin's notes and Sepia articles and was well received critically when it was published in 1961. A second edition was published in 1977 with a new epilogue by the author. All together, the book has sold more than 5 million copies, and in 1964 it was made into a movie. The book was not popular with some of Griffin's neighbors; in fact, they hanged him in effigy.

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